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Intel Prototypes Low-Power Circuits

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This prototype chip being tested at Intel Labs incorporates error-correction circuits that let it run at low voltages to save power.

Intel Labs

The smaller a silicon transistor becomes, the more electrons it leaks. That can mean unreliable, battery-draining chips. Researchers at Intel have come up with a way of dealing with the problem that subverts the industry's strong preference for precision. The company's prototype chip operates in a low-power but error-prone mode, but it detects and corrects its errors. This approach, researchers have found, saves 37 percent on power compared with running in conventional mode with no loss of performance.

One way to ensure better performance, even as transistors get smaller and leakier, is to operate them at a relatively high voltage all the time. Most microprocessors today are designed to run at a level that represents a kind of worst-case scenario, says Wen-Hann Wang, director of circuits and systems research at Intel and vice president of Intel Labs  in Hillsboro, OR. But it's rare that a user is doing so many things at once--say, playing a graphics-rich game, uploading video to Facebook, and surfing the Web--that the microprocessor needs to be running in its highest range.

The company's prototype chip is based on the 45-nanometer transistors in its products today, but it incorporates resilient circuits. The chip is run at low voltage, and when an error-detection circuit detects a problem, the calculation is redone at high voltage to correct it. "When you have to correct an error, and reexecute a process more slowly, there is a tiny penalty," says Wang. "But overall, you get a huge return." Tests in the lab have shown that the chip can either save 37 percent on power consumption, or operate 21 percent faster at a given power level.

From Technology Review
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