Imagination, TSMC collaborate on graphics chips with 3D transistors

Could lead to faster and more power-efficient smartphones and tablets.

Graphics processors with 3D transistors could come to smartphones and tablets through a technology collaboration between Imagination Technologies and contract chip maker TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.).

The companies on Monday announced an agreement in which Imagination will provide designs of its PowerVR Series6 graphics processors to TSMC. TSMC will ultimately make chips based on the GPU design with 3D transistors, which could lead to faster and more power-efficient smartphones and tablets.

Graphics processors are gaining importance in mobile devices, and Apple and Nvidia are creating mobile chips that can render high-definition games and video. However, graphics are considered a drain on battery life, and a lot of work is being done so GPUs are more power efficient and fit the power profile of mobile devices.

The Series6 chips will be made by TSMC on the 16-nanometer process, in a design that calls for transistors to be stacked on top of each other in a chip -- the "3D" aspect of the design. That differs from current chips that use a planar structure in which transistors are arranged next to each other. The 3D transistor design, also called FinFET in the semiconductor industry, improves chip performance while saving power.

Imagination's PowerVR graphics cores are used in Apple's mobile devices, Samsung's eight-core Exynos Octa 5 chip, Intel-based tablets and other products. The graphics cores are usually implemented in mobile devices alongside CPU cores, and Nvidia's future Tegra chip, code-named Parker -- which implements its own CPU and GPU design -- is expected to also include 3D transistors.

Intel was the first implement 3D transistors in CPUs when it started making chips using the 22-nanometer process in 2011. TSMC rival GlobalFoundries is expected to implement FinFET in its manufacturing process starting in 2014

Neither Imagination nor TSMC said when the Series6 chips with 3D transistors would become available. Intel and Apple hold minor stakes in Imagination.

TSMC also makes chips for companies like Qualcomm, Nvidia and other companies.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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