Vista pales next to news of new nano technique

Plugged In

February 01, 2007|By Mike Himowitz | Mike Himowitz,Sun Columnist

Microsoft's release of Vista, the latest and greatest version of the Windows operating system, captured the big headlines. But Vista obscured this week's real technology news - a new technique for making microprocessors that will have far more impact on our lives in the long run.

To get your head around this, you have to learn to love the word "nano" - a Greco-technical term that means one-billionth of something.

A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, which is - well, really small. So tiny that the word "nanotechnology" refers to the science of building electronic circuits or mechanical devices at the molecular or atomic level.

The great scientific, technical and medical breakthroughs of the next generation will take place at the near-invisible nano level, resulting in super-powerful computers that fit in a shirt pocket and tiny machines that crawl through the bloodstream, delivering cancer drugs directly to the surface of tumors.

This week's nano-breakthrough came from Intel, the chip-making giant whose microprocessors power the vast majority of the world's personal computers and an increasing share of the large servers that businesses depend on.

Intel announced the first fundamental change in the way electronic circuits are produced since the 1960s - replacing much of the silicon dioxide used for insulation in its microscopic transistors with an alloy of an element called halfnium, which is far less likely to leak electricity.

So what's the big deal? It means that circuits can be made even smaller and pack in even more transistors - the tiny switches that number in the hundreds of millions and do the real work in computers and other devices.

Until the latest announcements, Intel's best technology produced chips with transistors at the 65-nanometer level. The next generation of chips, which should appear by the end of this year, will use 45-nanometer technology.

The net result, Intel says, is twice the transistor density, which theoretically means you can cram twice as much computing power onto the same chip.

In fact, Intel says it can cram 30 million transistors onto the head of a pin - if it ever decides the world needs a pin computer.

The new technology also provides a 20 percent improvement in switching speed and a 30 percent reduction in power requirements.

If you don't think power consumption number is a big deal, just try using one of today's high-end laptops on your lap - you'll find out just how hot a hot machine can run.

More importantly, the change in chip design means that Moore's Law will not be repealed any time soon. This isn't legislation - it's a formula named after Intel founder Gordon Moore, who famously predicted that engineers would figure out how to double the number of transistors crammed onto a wafer of silicon every 18 months or so.

When you show up at Best Buy or CompUSA, Moore's Law translates into computers that have continually become cheaper and more powerful, as well as gadgets like the iPod music and video player, which packs more computing power into a shirt pocket than most of us had on our desktops a few years ago.

The only reason Microsoft can market Vista's Premium edition, with a souped-up graphical interface that gobbles microprocessor cycles and memory, is Moore's Law. It has produced computers cheap and powerful enough to handle Vista's demands without making a fatal dent in most customers' bank accounts.(In fact, more than a few cynics see Vista as part of a vast conspiracy involving Microsoft, Intel and the entire hardware industry. After years in the doldrums, when people didn't need better computers for anything practical, consumers finally have a reason to buy.)

In any case, doomsayers had long predicted that Moore's Law would eventually run headlong into the laws of physics, which limit how far engineers can shrink a silicon-based circuit. Given the current materials used in processors, memory chips and other integrated circuits, some predicted that the computer power orgy would end before 2015.

This time, by changing the chemical structure of its circuits, Intel has dodged the bullet. The company says it already has processors based on its new Penryn technology running the Windows and Mac operating systems in its labs, and they should start to make their way to the marketpace this year.

Expect these chips to to show up in high-end PCs first - the kind that gamers and video buffs buy. First-person shoot-'em-ups and high-resolution movie production are the only desktop applications that really tax any computer today. And their owners are crazy enough to part with 4 or 5 grand for a PC.

Eventually, we'll all benefit from lighter laptops with batteries that will last through a flight across the Atlantic and a whole generation of new, multipurpose high-tech tools and toys that make today's smart phones look like something cavemen used.

Still not convinced?

In a different corner of the industry, scientists at Cal Tech and UCLA reported in this week's edition of the journal Nature that they have produced a molecular-level memory chip 20 times as dense as today's best silicon.

Although it's a long way from production, the researchers say they can record 100 billion bits of information - the equivalent of 100,000 novels - in a single square centimeter.

Stay tuned.

Department of corrections:

Several readers chided me for a recent column in which I underreported the amount of internal memory in Apple's new iPhones. The company makes two versions of the gadget, one with 4 gigabytes of memory for music, video and photos, the other with 8 gigabytes.

My apologies.

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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