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Rumours abound ahead of Intel announcement

Intel has warned the tech media to be on high alert for its "most significant technology announcement of the year," scheduled for 1730 tonight - but just what has the company got up its sleeve?

Intel's playing its cards very close to its chest with this one - telling thinq_ in no uncertain terms that "no further details will be provided in advance" - and there isn't a hint of a leak around - something that's practically unheard of for a major announcement from the chip giant. There's plenty of rumour and speculation however, with ideas ranging from the mundane to the revolutionary.

The dullest of the theories suggests that Intel's "most significant" announcement will be a system-on-chip Atom design that can finally compete with British chip giant ARM's designs for use in embedded and battery-friendly mobile designs - but, looking at what the company has already, it hardly seems likely to be the case.

Another possible contender is the announcement of a deal with Apple on future A-series mobile processors for its iPhone and iPad product lines. While this has been suggested before, the announcement comes too conveniently close to the time the rumour first appeared - and would see Intel making chips based on designs from arch rival ARM.

A more likely scenario is the annoucement of its next-generation processors, based around a 22nm production process. We already know that Intel has 22nm facilities up and running thanks to its deal with Achronix, which sees Intel act as a foundry for the company's 22nm-based FPGA products - and Intel chief Paul Otellini has previously stated that Ivy Bridge, the 22nm successor to Sandy Bridge, will appear in the second half of 2011. Many had believed that Intel was saving that announcement for Computex, however.

The final rumour comes courtesy of DailyFinance, which suggests that Intel could be about to deliver on a promise it made five years ago: tri-gate transitors. If true, Intel could well be about to give itself a massive head start over every other semiconductor manufacturer around - and it would certainly fit the event's billing of "most significant."

Intel first mooted the possibility of moving to tri-gate transistors from the traditional planar transistor construction back in 2006. "Integrated CMOS tri-gate transistors will play a critical role in Intel's energy-efficient performance philosophy," a document at the time claimed, "because they have a lower leakage current and consume less power than planar transistors."

Energy efficiency is currently a key platform for Intel: while an increase in efficiency will help its entire product line, a drop in power draw without sacrificing performance would be the breakthrough the company needs to truly compete against ARM in the lucrative smartphone, tablet, and embedded computing markets.

The tri-gate transistor technology was expected to appear some time in 2010, meaning - if we allow for inevitable delays - Intel has had roughly the right amount of time to develop it into a commercial implementation.

If tonight's announcement does turn out to be semiconductors based on tri-gate transistors, and if the technology offers the improvements in power efficiency that Intel claimed it would five years ago, the company is likely to make a significant splash in the market - and it will be ARM's turn to start worrying.

We've wangled our way onto the guest list for the announcement, and will be waiting with bated breath to see if the CPU market is about to get a lot more one-sided.

UPDATE 18:24: Intel has confirmed that its next-generation Ivy Bridge processors will feature tri-gate transistors, and claims that its work on the technology gives it a three-year head start over its competitors including AMD and ARM. The full story is available over here.