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Mobile Marvel

Imagine a Nintendo Game Boy with the gee-whiz graphics of a Sony PlayStation 2 console. That’s one of the visions that inspired a team at the University of California, Berkeley, to design a new microprocessor that puts the capabilities of chips found in game consoles and personal computers into battery-powered handheld devices.

Berkeley computer scientists David Patterson, Kathy Yelick, and their students combined several unusual features for their Vector Intelligent Random Access Memory chip. The researchers placed transistors dedicated to short-term memory along with the processor on a single chip: that’s a departure from the typical microprocessor arrangement that has most memory on separate chips. This change alone reduces the chip’s power consumption to less than one-twelfth that of the processors inside most PCs and laptops. The Berkeley researchers also wrote a program that breaks the repetitive instructions involved in video processing into chunks that can be processed in parallel. Finally, the researchers tailored the chip around a single task: processing 30 frames per second of video data. This simplified its wiring and made the chip cheaper to manufacture than previous memory-in-processor chips.

IBM volunteered to fabricate the first batch of prototype chips, which are being tested now. Dean McCarron, principal at Mercury Research, a semiconductor research firm in Cave Creek, AZ, says the Berkeley group’s “unique” approach offers “a subtle way to get more processing” out of a low-power chip.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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