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Secret recipe inside Intel's latest competitor

Montalvo Systems has a multiple-core chip, but not all of the cores are the same. That in part explains why investors have put money into it.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
It works like an Intel chip, but looks like the Cell processor.

That's one way of describing the energy-efficient multiple core processors being devised by secretive Montalvo Systems. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company has come up with a design for a chip for portable computers and devices that--when finished and manufactured--will theoretically be capable of running the same software as chips from Intel or Advanced Micro Devices.

Montalvo's chips, however, will fundamentally differ from the latest Core or Opteron processors from Intel and AMD in that the cores on its chip won't be symmetrical, i.e. identical to each other. Instead, Montalvo's chips will sport a mix of high-performance cores and lower-performance cores on the same piece of silicon, similar to the Cell chip devised by IBM, Toshiba, and Sony, according to sources close to the company.

By merging asymmetrical cores onto the same piece of silicon, Montalvo can cut power consumption by dishing applications that don't require a lot of computing firepower onto less-powerful, more energy-efficient cores. Applications could conceivably also be shuttled to low-power cores after their need for high-performance elapses: Microsoft Outlook, for instance, requires a burst of performance during the launch phase but far less once it's running.

Asymmetrical cores can also provide better performance on applications such as video if programmed for that purpose, say proponents of the architecture. The Cell processor became the first chip to successfully champion this idea. The Cell consists of a primary microprocessor core and an array of "synergistic processing elements" that can be programmed to perform discrete tasks like managing networking or video streaming.

Cell chips have primarily been used inside Sony's PlayStation 3, but IBM has inserted Cell chips in some server blades. Toshiba plans to put the chip inside TVs and may put it inside PCs. (While the initial Cell comes with eight synergistic cores, chips can be made with fewer.) Mercury Computer Systems has also adopted Cell for some computers.

Montalvo has not stated whether it has adopted an asymmetrical core to save power, boost performance on media applications, or both. In fact, the company doesn't say anything at all. The closest it has come to a public statement are shirts handed out to employees saying that the company can't say what it is up to. Montalvo declined to comment for this story.

The somewhat different, asymmetrical nature of Montalvo's chip in part helps explain why investors have put more than $73 million into the Sisyphean task of taking on Intel. Montalvo wants to land its chips into all sorts of portable computers: notebooks, handheld devices such as the OQO, and ornate smartphones. Several companies, however, have tried this and failed because of the daunting nature of trying to compete against Intel. Cyrix, Transmeta, Rise--none of them ever lived up to its advance billing. Only AMD has survived, and AMD has lost more money that it has made in its 30-year plus existence.

Montalvo is funded by people who've tangled or been entangled with Intel before too. NEA-IndoUS's Vinod Dham, who sits on Montalvo's board, was one of Intel's chief chip architects during the Pentium era. He then went to NexGen, which designed an Intel-compatible chip, and then AMD when it bought NexGen.

Montalvo's CEO is Matt Perry, who also served as chief executive of Transmeta, which once tried to take on Intel in notebooks but now largely concentrates on technology licensing. Peter Song, Montalvo's chief architect, earlier founded a company called MemoryLogix, which tried to build low-power Intel-compatible chips. Other current and former employees include Greg Favor (formerly of NexGen and AMD) and Mike Yamamura. (CNET Networks blogger Peter Glaskowsky is chief systems architect for Montalvo and is listed as a co-inventor on two published Montalvo patent applications, but he was not involved in any way in this story. CNET is the publisher of News.com.)

Some of Montalvo's patent applications can be viewed here.

Although it has designed a chip, Montalvo has not yet produced a chip based on its designs.