Intel at chip conference: More wireless, less GHz

At the International Solid-State Circuits Conference, Intel will present 15 papers, with a special focus on new system-on-a-chip developments and wireless silicon.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

At the International Solid-State Circuits Conference, Intel will present 15 papers, with a renewed emphasis on integrating more functions into one chip--and less focus on gigahertz. Intel is especially focusing on squeezing more sophisticated wireless silicon into small devices.

"The trend of using smaller transistors to build larger microprocessor cores with higher operating frequency is coming to an end," Mark Bohr, an Intel senior fellow, said Wednesday.

The chipmaker will highlight research on what it is proclaiming as the "new system-on-a-chip (SoC) era," which it describes as requiring "a fundamental shift in the way semiconductor manufacturers will innovate to keep Moore's Law alive." An SoC typically integrates a number of separate functions onto one piece of silicon or into one chip package.

As part of the focus on SoC, Intel is riveting its gaze on the integration of radio silicon, as mobile computers--handhelds, Netbooks, and laptops--become increasingly oriented around connectivity. Future SoCs will have "flexible" radios included on-chip that handle Wi-Fi, WiMAX, 3G, Bluetooth and other widely used standards, according to Intel.

Intel is focusing on getting a variety of wireless technologies onto a system-on-a-chip
Intel is focusing on getting a variety of wireless technologies onto a system-on-a-chip Intel

"The key research challenge Intel is looking at is how to resolve the inherent problems with a growing number of network technologies--WiMax, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, etc.--that are landing on platforms and in computers," Intel said Wednesday. "How can you support multiple standards in small form factor devices when you have limited space not only for the radio, but also for the antennas."

Intel spelled out some of the key radio requirements:

  • Should fit in a variety of form factors from laptops to mobile Internet devices (MIDs) to cell phones
  • Increased levels of integration needed
  • Convert more analog to digital to take advantage of Moore's law (45 nanometer, 32nm and beyond)
  • Users can get 200Mb/s today will want 5Gb/s very soon
  • Future radios will need to automatically switch from one network to another with no negative impact to the user

Intel will also discuss optical interconnects for chip-to-chip communications. "The idea of photonics (which is still very much a research idea) is to use optical interconnects to provide the high bandwidth that will be required for some chip-to-chip communications in the future," an Intel spokeperson said Wednesday. This would be an example of another component that could appear in a future SOC, according to Intel.

Intel will also present a paper on a temperature sensor for processors. "Numerous remote sensors are used to measure temperature over the entire multi-core die," Intel said in a statement. "The processor control unit can then work with these sensors and provide accurate temperature information to higher level software components for various housekeeping and optimization tasks."

This will allow better microprocessor performance reliably, with multiple location hot spot temperature measurements and extend the life of processor components by maintaining lower operational stress, Intel said.

On the graphics silicon front, Intel will talk about research into mobile graphics based on SIMD, in which a Single Instruction is applied to Multiple Data elements (such as all the pixels in an image). "With devices becoming smaller and applications becoming more visual, better techniques are needed to do more SIMD processing while using less energy," Intel said in a statement. "Today's SIMD acceleration circuits have high leakage currents and limited power management, and do not scale well to reduced voltages."

For the time being, Intel is not talking about graphics silicon for specific processors. "We are not talking about any specific processor or chip. This is a research effort that would eventually be a component which does the parallel processing within an SOC, CPU or GPU," an Intel spokesperson said Wednesday. (CPU stands for Central Processing Unit; GPU stands for Graphics Processing Unit.)

"This paper is talking about an achievement which would specifically target small devices (i.e. laptops)," the spokesperson said. "We can do SIMD MMX on desktop today, but this research is bringing the technology to small devices." (MMX is a type of SIMD instruction.)