By The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – Intel Corp. said Wednesday that it has redesigned the electronic switches on its chips so computers can keep getting cheaper and more powerful.

Transistors have typically been flat. By adding a third dimension – “fins” that jut up from the base – Intel will be able to make transistors and chips smaller, the way skyscrapers address the need for more office space when land is scarce.

The chips will also run on less power. That gives Intel its best shot yet at cracking the growing markets for chips used in smartphones and tablet computers. Intel has been weak there because its current chips use too much power.

Chips with 3-D, or tri-gate, transistors will be in full production this year and appear in computers in 2012.

Intel has been talking about such transistors for nearly a decade, and other companies are experimenting with similar technology. Intel, however, can now cheaply mass-produce the transistors.

Transistors are at the center of the digital universe. They’re the workhorses of modern electronics, tiny on/off switches that regulate electric current. They’re to computers what synapses are to the human nervous system.

A chip can have a billion transistors side-by-side in a single layer. Chips had no “depth” until now. On Intel’s chips, the fins will jut up from that layer.

However, adding whole layers of transistors to a chip remains a distant but hotly-pursued goal of the industry, as cubic chips could be much faster and more power-efficient than flat ones.

Still, analysts call the development one of the most significant in silicon transistor design since the integrated circuit was invented more than half a century ago.

“When I looked at it, I did a big ‘wow.’ What we’ve seen for decades now have been evolutionary changes to the technology. This is definitely a revolutionary change,” said Dan Hutcheson, a longtime semiconductor industry watcher and CEO of VLSI Research who was briefed ahead of Intel’s announcement.

For consumers, 3-D transistors mean that they can expect Moore’s law to continue to hold. Pronounced in 1965 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, it maintains that computer performance will double every two years as the number of transistors on the chips roughly doubles as well.

That’s been threatened as transistors have become minuscule and engineers have confronted physical limitations on how much smaller they can go. Controlling power leakage is a central concern.

For Intel, which is based in Santa Clara, Calif., the change is a reminder of its leadership in advanced semiconductor technology and its incentive to keep Moore’s law alive.

Previous major changes have focused on new materials that can be used for transistors, not entire redesigns of the transistors themselves.

Other semiconductor companies say the performance of current transistors can still be improved. Hutcheson agrees but said Intel’s approach should allow it to advance at least a generation ahead of its rivals, including IBM Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices.

The reduced power consumption addresses a key need for Intel.

The performance expectations and power requirements for PCs are much higher than for phones and tablet computers, so Intel’s dominance in PC chips doesn’t necessarily lead to success in mobile devices. Even Intel’s Atom-based chips, which are designed for mobile devices, have been called too power-hungry.

The new technology will be used for Intel’s PC and Atom chips.

Technological leadership alone won’t guarantee success, however, as Intel has learned in repeated attempts at cracking the mobile market.

Chipmakers such as Qualcomm and Dallas-based Texas Instruments have entrenched partnerships with cell phone makers, and there is suspicion about the performance of Intel’s chips in mobile devices.

“When it comes to the mobile market, they have their work cut out for them,” Hutcheson said of Intel. But “this gives you the transistors to build the next great system.”

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