IBM's PowerPC chip to reach 1GHz

The new chip is coming out at 750MHz but will be able to reach 1GHz in subsequent versions. It is also using a new manufacturing process that improves energy efficiency.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
3 min read
IBM will take the wraps off a gigahertz-capable PowerPC chip on Monday at the Microprocessor Forum, one of the year's top events for the silicon set.

The new PowerPC 750FX, which will come out at 750MHz but will be able to reach 1GHz in subsequent versions, will be the first IBM chip to use a new manufacturing process called CMOS9S. This combines recent chipmaking innovations--including copper wires, silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology and low-capacitance dielectrics--with a 130-nanometer (0.13-micron) manufacturing process.

These technologies collectively shrink power consumption, which allows IBM to boost the clock speed of the 750FX. As a result, the chip will run at speeds of up to 1GHz with typical power consumption of 5 watts, IBM executives said.

Motorola, the other PowerPC maker, has also promised a 1GHz chip.

Although the largest market for IBM's new chip will be networking equipment, it could potentially end up in Macs, from Apple Computer, which already use PowerPC chips.

The 750FX is part of IBM's larger effort to create a family of PowerPC chips that reach 2GHz and to reduce power consumption across the product line. IBM will also show off a version of the PowerPC that can shut off different parts of itself to save on energy.

Power consumption will be one of the major topics next week in San Jose, Calif., at the five-day Microprocessor Forum, which is considered the Comdex of chips.

Besides consuming a relatively low amount of energy, the upcoming chip--which will come out in samples in January and debut commercially later--will also trump the PC camp's chips on performance, IBM said. PowerPC chips in the past have outperformed Intel's and Advanced Micro Devices' chips running at the same speed on certain benchmark tests, according to analysts.

"Hands down, it puts us ahead of everyone in the industry by a couple of generations of performance," said Bijan Davari, vice president of technology for IBM's microelectronics division. "It delivers the best performance per power (consumption) ratio."

An Intel representative could not immediately be reached for comment.

Intel and AMD do use copper wires in their chips but neither have implemented SOI yet.

Intel recently began moving to a 130-nanometer manufacturing process. Intel also uses or plans to use low-capacitance materials in its chips.

AMD plans to move to a 130-nanometer process early next year, followed by a transition to SOI. Samples of AMD's chip created with the 130-nanometer process are expected later this year.

Low-capacitance dielectrics insulate interconnects--the tiny wires that connect transistors--from electrical interference, improving performance and saving on power.

SOI adds a layer of oxide material between a transistor and the silicon substrate it rests on inside a chip. The oxide layer reduces the amount of electrical energy absorbed by the silicon, allowing the transistor to work faster. Or it can be tweaked to consume less power at a given clock speed.

IBM asserts that low-capacitance dielectrics and SOI each grant up to 30 percent performance increases.

Power consumption is an important consideration for IBM. Power use generates heat, which is bad news in densely packed rooms of networking equipment. Lowering the power use also lets designers create faster chips without breaking the permissible thermal envelope.

"At speeds of 1GHz, the (750FX) chip consumes only 5 watts of power, so you can use it for a lot of applications, such as portables," Davari said.

This could make the 750FX a potential processor for Apple's portable and desktop lines, but IBM representatives wouldn't comment.

Although Apple would be a high-profile win for the chip, its main market will be networking. IBM sells the vast majority of its chip products in the networking arena. PowerPC chips drive everything from printers to network routers.

"Its target markets are hubs, routers and switches," among other products, said Dean Parker, IBM's PowerPC product-marketing manager. The chip will also be used in network-storage equipment and so-called blade servers.

The technological underpinnings of the chip will also likely emerge in products from other manufacturers. IBM manufactures chips on behalf of a number of other companies, including Hewlett-Packard. The company largely serves as the Cartier of foundries: When companies want the latest and greatest, they tend to turn to Big Blue.

Some customers are already evaluating the 750FX; it will begin sampling widely in January.

IBM will announce the chip's initial clock speed and price at a later date. It is expected to debut at about 750MHz.