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Intel to unveil its 'Internet on a chip'

The company's new technology will give devices such as handheld computers the ability to access the Internet and run applications twice as fast as was previously possible.

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  Intel's magic wafer
Al Fazio, principal engineer, Intel Technology Manufacturing Group
Intel, through the union of a processor core, flash memory technology and a digital signal processor, has created what it calls the "Internet on a chip."

The chipmaker will announce the technology Thursday at its Intel Developer Forum in Amsterdam. The new chip, the company said, will give devices such as handheld computers the ability to access the Internet and run applications twice as fast as was previously possible.

"We believe this is a breakthrough in silicon technology manufacturing," said Al Fazio, principal engineer for wireless in Intel's Technology and Manufacturing Group.

Although Intel claims a breakthrough with its Internet chip, the concept of combining a processor core, DSP and memory into a single chip--sometimes referred to as a "system on a chip"--is not a new one. Texas Instruments, the top DSP maker and Intel's main competitor in the handheld and cell phone markets, has also followed this route.

For Intel to do the same, the company worked over a period of time to integrate the chip technologies by creating enough in common between their three different manufacturing processes so it could blend them into one chip, Fazio said.

As a result, Intel can build a single chip that includes an XScale processor core, flash memory and a MicroSignal Architecture DSP core. Thanks to the clock speed of the XScale chip--up to 1GHz--and other performance gains achieved through the integration of the three chips, Intel said the new Internet chip will speed the delivery of applications such as streaming video to handheld computers and cell phones. A DSP serves to refine signals, such as a voice, coming into a cell phone.


Gartner analyst Stanley Bruederle says Intel's "Internet on a chip" announcement makes it a serious contender in the production of microchips for next-generation mobile phones.

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"What we've done is taken what was previously a minimum of three chips, and possibly as many as five, and brought it all into one chip. When you integrate components together, you have a much higher level of performance that's available," Fazio said.

"Right off the bat it can run up to 1GHz," he added. However, it's likely that device makers will start with chips with a lower clock speed.

In the case of Intel's new chip technology, integrated memory ensures the processor is fed with enough data "so you can run (applications) that were previously not thought possible to run on these devices," he said.

At the same time, Intel said the chip will consume less power by eliminating the buses, or data pipelines, that connect the three chips. Buses burn a relatively large amount of power.

TI's equivalent chip is part of OMAP (Open Multimedia Applications Platform), which is an effort to build a set of hardware and software building blocks for the next generation of cell phones and handhelds. TI recently began sending samples of its first OMAP chip to manufacturers. The chip combines a RISC processor core, flash memory and a high-end DSP.

TI's emphasis, as shown in a recent speech by CEO Tom Engibous, is on ensuring that the connection between a phone or handheld and a network is strong.

"The mobile Internet is not designed to duplicate the PC. It is designed to enhance the Internet with a new experience," Engibous said during an April speech at a J.P. Morgan H&Q investor conference.

Intel, for its part, may be more focused on processing power than on communications. Putting the emphasis on the processor "is a better way to process data" in a phone or handheld, an Intel spokesman said.

To date, Intel has produced only test versions based on its Internet-on-a-chip concept. However, it plans to begin shipping its first chips based on the three-way technology in the first half of 2002.

Because of the onboard memory, Intel predicts its new integrated chip will double the performance of its current, separate chips for handhelds and cell phones. "Over time, you'll see 5X," Fazio said.