John Chamberlain
Developer Diary
 Developer Diary · You Heard It Here First · Tuesday 3 February 2004
90nm Process Heats Up - Has Moore's Law Ended?
Yesterday Intel released their newest class of processors code named Prescott. Prescott was supposed to be the next generation of PC chip (ie Pentium 5) but it looks like Intel is deciding against that renaming because the small performance gains of the Prescott do not justify it. Tom's Hardware has an unusually obtuse review of the new chip. The bottom line is that the new 90nm process seems to be resulting in thermal problems that threaten the viability of the chip.

Intel has been pushing its engineers to beat AMD in the process race. Currently AMD only produces 130nm chips and is at least six months away from any 90nm production. The big "I" might regret its decision however if thermal problems are not overcome. What happens is that as the grooves and overlays become closer together electron leakage increase the thermal load on the chip and it gets hotter during operation. Tom's observes that the Prescott runs noticeably hotter than 130nm Pentium 4s, even those running at higher clock speeds. So far Intel has not released Prescotts at the highest clock speeds and this may because they run too hot to support these clock speeds. If so this will mean a marketing problem for Intel as it tries to explain to consumers why their most advanced chip runs at lower clock speeds. Since consumers can only remember one number at a time this may be a difficult thing to explain.

With the extra space they saved using the narrower process Intel added more cache. The overall gains however appear to be limited. The Prescott could end up being a tough sell because it is a lot more expensive and runs at a lower clock speed. If bad therms are lowering yields as well it could be financial painful. Remember that Intel is slashing prices on older chips (since I am currently buying a new computer this couldn't come at a better time :-). Profits may erode.

An interesting question is whether chips have finally reached a minimum size at 90Nm due to the heat problem. Has Moore's Law finally met its match? If so this will emphasize AMD's lead in 64-bit design. If Moore's Law comes to an end, pipelining and interprocessor communication will become the dominant factors in computer performance.

All I know is computers sure are getting hotter. When my house lost heat a couple of weeks ago the study (where the computer is located) stayed in the 50s while the rest of the house dropped to the 40s, and I have an old 300Mhz Pentium. Nowadays there are big fans on the processors and the video cards. For my new computer I expect to use a power supply that is double the wattage of my existing power supply.

Moore's Law may have ended for chips but it sure hasn't ended for power consumption.

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