Intel on Thursday gave some of the details of a new manufacturing technology that could greatly speed up the chips embedded in mobile handsets and other wireless devices, while extending battery life to as long as a month. The "wireless Internet on a chip" process is a step towards the 3G handsets envisioned by wireless carriers, capable of playing video clips and carrying out complex computing tasks without sacrificing battery life.
The technology integrates three elements that are currently manufactured in separate processes: Flash memory, the computing or "logic" circuitry, and the analogue communications processor. Differences in manufacturing procedures have made it difficult to come up with a single process to handle all of them.
Putting the three elements onto one die should allow devices to consume far less power, allowing for both longer battery life and more powerful processors.
Ron Smith, vice president and general manager of Intel's Wireless Computing and Communications Group, predicted the process would enable such futuristic form factors as wearable computers and video watch phones. "I don't think there's going to be one type of client," he said. "There will be different clients for different tastes."
At the Intel Developer Forum in Amsterdam, Intel demonstrated an experimental single-chip system running at nearly 400MHz, more than twice the speed of today's typical mobile phone processor. 2.5G mobile phones -- with always-on data connections but without broadband -- are expected to need processors running at about 170MHz, while 3G processors will need to run at around 300MHz, according to Intel.
The system is currently based on Intel's StrongARM processor, which will begin to be replaced by the XScale microarchitecture later this year.
The demonstration system was based on a 0.18-micron manufacturing process, the same as is currently used for most PC chips. Smith said it would begin to announce products based on "wireless Internet on a chip" when a 0.13 micron process is in place, but did not say when that might be. Intel is to begin transitioning its PC processors to 0.13 micron later this year.
More efficient and powerful chips will be necessary for wireless providers to introduce next-generation mobile services this year and next year, as planned. Handsets combining mobile phone and computing functions are already available, but tend to display a noticeably shorter battery life than standard handsets.
However, some might find Intel's focus on processor speed out of place in the mobile world. While for PCs more speed is always better, it is considered more important for portable devices to be able to carry out their tasks at a reasonable speed without sacrificing battery life. "Mobile chips only have to be fast enough," said a representative of ARM, the mobile chip designer, at a recent conference.
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