How Apple, Intel And Motorola Are Pushing 'Moore's Law' To Its Limits

Gordon MooreIntel / YouTubeGordon Moore

In 1965, Gordon Moore (one of the founders of Intel) stated that he believed the number of transistors that could be put on the same sized wafer for a minimum cost per transistor would double every year.

In 1975, he changed his estimate to a doubling every two years. For a very long time, that estimate has been incredibly accurate. Because of how semiconductors work, the smaller transistors produced over time inherently used less power while running faster.

Until the early 2000s, that is. That’s when transistors started to become so small and densely packed together that it became difficult for engineers to pack more in and still dissipate enough heat to keep them from burning out.

According to the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, that’s when companies had to start resorting to “Equivalent Scaling,” which is another way of saying “finding other ways to keep performance moving forward when a chipset isn’t moving to a smaller architecture.”

Considering Moore's Law came from a founder of Intel, it's no surprise that the company has found so many creative ways to keep improving performance. With that said, 'strained silicon,' 'high-k' metal, and '3D' transistors can only go so far before silicon transistors starting bumping against physical size limits.

Former Intel CTO Justin Rattner. He stepped down this summer.

The transistors in Apple's smartphone and tablet processors continue to get smaller each generation, but the rate has decreased drastically over the last two years. To continue offering more power and less battery drain, the iPhone 5S offloads motion data collection to the M7, a simpler processor that uses far less power.

Motorola included a similar processor in the Moto X so that it can always listen for voice commands without killing battery life.

Mobile devices aren't the only platforms where the balance between power and efficiency is important. The PlayStation 4 offloads downloading and game recording duty from the CPU to separate processors that cost less than adding more cores to the CPU so that the game being played can have as much CPU power as possible.

With the Xbox One, Microsoft uses one of the recommendations straight from the International Technology Roadmap: It embedded a small amount of insanely fast 'static' RAM into its architecture, allowing the CPU to have almost immediate access to the most vital numbers that need to be crunched.

HP Labs has had a lot of success with its work on memristors, memory technology that is fast enough to replace both the RAM and the hard drive/flash storage in a device while using 1/100th the amount of power. As anyone who's used a computer with a solid-state drive can tell you, faster memory makes almost everything on a computer take less time.

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