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Integrated chip effort under way at Intel

Although it has derided the concept in the past, Intel will attempt to come out with its own system-on-a-chip device toward the end of 2000.

Although it has derided the concept of integrating graphics and other functions onto a PC chip in the past, Intel will attempt to come out with its own system-on-a-chip device toward the end of 2000.

Called "Timna," the chip will contain a Celeron processor core, a graphics unit, and a memory controller, said sources. The processor is slated to come out toward the end of 2000 and will be likely aimed at low-end PCs and intelligent TV set-top boxes.

The company is shifting toward integration--which potentially can lower the silicon budget of PC manufacturers--largely because it can. Processors are currently made on the 0.25-micron manufacturing process. When companies shift to the 0.18-micron process later this year, the wires that cover a semiconductor wires will shrink, leaving room to place more transistors on the chip.

Low-end Celeron processors will start to be made under the 0.18-micron process in 2000, according to Intel executives, opening real estate to add these functions.

Despite the potential cost savings that integrated chips can provide, analysts and even chip executives have generally been lukewarm on the concept. Graphics technology currently progresses faster than microprocessor technology. As a result, integrated processors typically will contain lagging-edge graphics technology, pointed out Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst at MicroDesign Resources.

Integration also compounds development problems. "It would be so easy for a project like this to slip. You have to wait for both the processor and graphics unit to be debugged," he said. National Semiconductor, which makes the MediaGX line of integrated processors, has delayed its MXi, the next generation integrated processor for the company.

In the past, Intel executives have said that it makes more sense to integrate graphics into the chipset. Intel, in fact, released a chipset containing graphics, the 810, last month, as well as a chipset for notebooks that integrated audio functions.

Integrated processors can also reduce the size of the motherboard, and hence the PC, but as Glaskowsky pointed out, "there are very few systems that don't have room for three chips."

Still, integration, "is the next logical step," countered Dean McCarron, principal at Mercury Research. Memory, graphics, and the processor communicate with each other quite a bit. Keeping those functions on the chipset creates an artificial barrier that can be removed. Audio functions, which will enable soft modem and audio, will likely be the next step.

Integrating a memory controller presents fewer problems, according to sources at Intel, because the controller changes less rapidly. Intel is looking at integrating a memory controller that works with Rambus-style memory, sources said. National and Compaq are taking the same action with upcoming MediaGX and Alpha processors. However, the question mark for the Intel and National projects are whether Rambus will be a low-end part by late 2000.

Timna refers to a desert in Israel, noted Glaskowsky. Intel's Israeli design team is said to be in charge of the product.

Paul Otellini, general manager of the Intel Architecture Business Group, stated that the company was looking at integrated chip designs at Comdex last year. He reiterated the plan in April with the rollout of the 810 chipset.

"In 1999 you well see integration of a lot of functions on the chipset, and in 2000 you will see integration between the processor and the chipset to take advantage of the transistor budget," Otellini said last year. If and when Timna is released, it may wind up as an engine for intelligent TV set-top boxes. Cyrix first positioned the MediaGX, which contains a memory controller, a graphics unit and more, as a desktop and notebook chip. Now, the part is mostly focus on set-top boxes.

Earlier this month, Philips selected a MediaGX to serve as the nerve center in the intelligent set-top boxes for the AOL TV project. As part of the same deal, Hughes Network Systems selected an Intel Pentium MMX chip to act as the brains for AOL TV boxes that use the Direct TV satellite transmission service.

Integrated processors can contain more functions. Modems, for instance, are being added to National's chips. However, at a minimum, chips like these, to make sense, need graphics, a memory controller, and a CPU, said Glaskowsky.