Intel's chips taking on new work

Chipmaker wants to get PC tech into places it currently doesn't dominate: consumer electronics and telecommunications equipment.

BEIJING--Intel has new chips in the works that it hopes will power the next generation of consumer electronics devices and telecommunications servers.

Company executives unveiled the plans Tuesday morning in Beijing, where Intel followers are gathered for the Intel Developer Forum. The chips are both designed to use the x86 instruction set architecture. Dubbed "system on a chip" products, they have lots of crucial components integrated directly onto the processor.

Intel also disclosed plans for a project code-named Larrabee, in which the company will develop high-performance processors for specific applications like scientific computing.

The consumer electronics chips will be aimed at devices like set-top boxes and televisions. Intel already makes chips for this segment, but those chips are basically scaled-down versions of notebook processors. The new designs, scheduled to arrive in 2008, will be designed specifically for this category.

Intel also used its XScale handheld chips--now the property of Marvell--in these consumer electronics applications but now thinks that it can succeed by using x86 chips in those spots.

Rival Advanced Micro Devices has been touting a similar strategy, called x86 Everywhere, for several years, but the instruction set that runs most of the world's PCs hasn't been as much of a hit in the consumer electronics world.

The x86 instruction set has tons of software available that was written for that platform, something Intel thinks will help it gain a foothold in consumer electronics as well as telecommunications, which is where "Tolopai" comes in. Tolopai is a project to develop chips that have communications devices in mind, primarily at the carrier level.

Both strategies involve taking Intel's regular processor designs, integrating an input/output controller that connects those processors to external storage, and adding specific hardware for that particular application. For instance, the consumer electronics chips will have dedicated hardware units for video acceleration, among other things.

This makes it much easier to play high-definition video--plus do everything else--using a single processor, said Eric Kim, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Digital Home Group.

Intel launched a simliar chip on Tuesday called the Intel CE 2110 Media Processor, but that's based on XScale, and the company is clearly looking forward to next year's x86-compatible chip.

This type of integration helps reduce the cost of building products using Intel's chips--since one chip can do the work of four--and should allow software developers to bring new types of applications to these areas, said Pat Gelsinger, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group.

Gelsinger also described Larrabee, which Intel positioned as a counterweight to Advanced Micro Devices' Fusion project. The project aims to integrate a high-performance graphics processor on the company's PC and server processors by 2008.

Naturally, most people have focused on the potential for powerful graphics as a result of that combination. But the design philosophies used to build graphics processors are also useful for a number of other applications, such as financial analytics or data mining, Gelsinger said.

"Larrabee ends the debate on GPGPUs (general purpose graphics processing units)," Gelsinger said. "This is what developers want." Although he avoided going into much detail, Gelsinger positioned Larrabee as easier to program than Fusion--which he never specifically mentioned--though it did not appear that Larrabee chips would be integrated into processors.

Gelsinger later clarified that Larrabee will appear a little later than AMD's Fusion project as part of Intel's terascale research projects. The company hasn't decided how many cores the Larrabee chips will have or exactly what they will look like, but it has decided that they will be x86-compatible and deliver 1 trillion floating-point operations per second, Gelsinger said.

The more near-term plan for competing with AMD's Fusion will come in the form of the Nehalem processor, which will have an integrated graphics chip in some iterations, he said.

Gelsinger also announced that Intel's Xeon chips for servers with four or more processors are set to receive an update. The Xeon 7300 processors, due in the third quarter, will be the first chips in this segment--and the last of Intel's major chip families--to adopt the Core architecture introduced last year.

Sin-Yaw Wang, vice president of global engineering at Sun Microsystems, joined Gelsinger on stage to announce plans to use the quad-core processors in two-socket and four-socket blade servers later this year.

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