Intel has long dominated the market for personal-computer and server chips, but as sales of these components decline, the Santa Clara, CA, company is hoping to get a better toehold in new markets, particularly those for smart phones, netbooks, and other mobile Internet devices. To do this, Intel is exploring system-on-chip (SoC) designs–complex microchips that perform specialized tasks on top of general-purpose computations.
Future SoC hardware will be less power hungry and capable of doing graphics processing, complex wireless communication, and on-chip temperature sensing, as well as general number crunching and memory management.
Today, Intel gave a preview of several papers that its researchers will present at the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco next week, including some revealing new SoC designs. Among the SoC designs disclosed are ones featuring wireless radios capable of using several different communications standards and operating at high speeds, integrated graphics processors for mobile devices that are many times more efficient than those used in desktop machines, and built-in sensors that track critical conditions on a chip itself.
Over the past few decades, Intel has fulfilled the prediction of its founder, Gordon Moore: that the number of transistors on a chip will double roughly every two years. With these new designs, the chip maker is turning its attention to adding much complexity to its chips as well. Components on these next-generation chips will be as small as just 32 nanometers.
“This is a new era of scaling in an SoC world,” says Mark Bohr, an Intel Senior Fellow. “As you reduce the size of transistors, the price per transistor goes down. It enables unprecedented complexity as we scale down to 32 nanometers.”
Last July, Intel announced plans to build several types of SoC components based on an existing processor design, called Intel architecture. The company has more than 15 SoC projects planned, including a chip code-named Canmore that will integrate computing, graphics, and audio-video capabilities for portable devices and is scheduled to debut later this year.
At next week’s conference, Intel researchers will also present work on chips that will most likely hit the market in three to five years, says Soumyanath Krishnamurthy, an Intel Fellow. One paper details an SoC featuring a new type of digital wireless radio that operates over a number of standards, including Wi-Fi, WiMax, and cellular-phone frequencies. One of the problems with this type of radio design, Krishnamurthy explains, is producing a clear signal. Without providing specific details, he says that Intel researchers have found a way to leverage the slight variations in silicon processing techniques to improve the radio signals.