Analysis: Intel takes integrated approach

Intel is taking a bold step away from its current principles of microprocessor design with an approach that integrates onto the CPU several peripheral functions that would previously have required add-in cards. The aim: cheaper, slimmer computers.

Intel is taking a bold step away from its current principles of microprocessor design with an approach that integrates onto the CPU several peripheral functions that would previously have required add-in cards. The aim: cheaper, slimmer computers.

Inside Intel the project is called ‘Whitney' and it is not expected to be publicly available until mid-1999 at best. Intel plans to build in functions from its i740 graphics processor as well as some sound processing. That would add up to systems that do not require a dedicated graphics board (or graphics chip on the motherboard) and possibly no sound hardware either. In theory, Intel could also add several other functions. Whitney systems could be attractive for cheap desktop PCs and mobile PCs as well as new products categories such as set-top boxes for decoding digital television.

Conventional wisdom says putting all your eggs in one basket is a risky tactic and the integrated approach to processor design is indeed a gamble. It demands the maker decide what functions can sensibly be integrated to the processor without technology moving on and leaving the CPU design hopelessly outdated. This is particularly important as systems based on integrated chips typically won't have the free upgrade slots that orthodox desktop PCs sport. Integrate a slow graphics engine and you risk alienating customers.

Intel's Whitney won't be the first to take the integrated route. Available since February 1997, Cyrix shipped well over 1m MediaGX processors in its first 12 months, a unit that merges graphics, audio, memory and PCI and USB interfaces onto the CPU. Cyrix contends that by putting as much of the processing burden as possible on the CPU, risk of stalls caused by data travelling over the slower-speed system bus is minimised. In practice however, systems based on the MediaGX have often suffered from sluggish performance.

Since the MediaGX' arrival, Cyrix has been updating clock speeds and features: it added MMX support in January this year for example. Early next year, it will push further into the space with a chip codenamed ‘MXi' which addresses some criticisms of the MediaGX by using its Cayenne core that includes a faster floating point capability. The MXi will also integrate yet further with 3D as well as 2D graphics, DVD and SDRAM. Cyrix has also talked about future integration plans including support for IEEE.1394 ‘FireWire, the rapid peripheral interface aimed primarily at handling motion video. The firm has also said it plans to put a ‘PC on a chip' putting all necessary functions for a PC on a single processor.

Although the MediaGX has been a success for Cyrix - especially in Compaq's Presario home lines - there are no signs that Intel will take an integrated approach to all its processor development. On a recent visit to London, Pat Gelsinger, Intel vice president of the business platform group, said that the integrated approach didn't work in areas where technology moved quickly, such as modem communications.

However, for specific niches, there are signs that the integrated approach is here to stay.

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