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RealTime IT News

CE Players Unveil Broadband on a Chip

Four consumer electronics companies are moving into production of a new 64-bit chip for non-PC devices in a bid to address the next generation of broadband services piped into the home.

Computer makers IBM, Toshiba, Sony Computer and its parent company Sony, outlined the first round of details of their jointly developed microprocessor. Code named Cell, the microprocessor has been dubbed a "supercomputer on a chip" because of built-in broadband connectivity that can handle high-speed, network-based computing as a network of chip systems act as a unified "supersystem."

The chip is based on IBM's Power processor core as well as additional microcontrollers and chipsets to make it capable of massive floating point processing. The companies said the chip should be able to power the gamut of applications found in small household consumer electronics devices, home entertainment systems and supercomputers.

"In the future, this digital content will fuse and converge on the broadband network, and start to explode," Sony COO Ken Kutaragi said in a statement. "To access and/or browse content freely in real-time, a more sophisticated graphical user interface within the 3D world will become key in the future. The current PC architecture is nearing its limits, in both processing power and bus bandwidth, for handling such rich applications."

Forecasts for the digital home bode well for the IBM/Toshiba/Sony Group project. Consumer purchases of electronics, such as digital cameras, personal media players, CD/DVD players, digital TVs and personal video recorders, are estimated to reach a record $101 billion this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association's U.S. Consumer Electronics Sales & Forecasts.

Already rivals such as Microsoft and Intel are teaming up on hardware and software systems to deliver what the companies call "Digital Joy." The Wintel partnership is hoping to recreate its PC magic in other parts of the home with the combination of Intel's Pentium 4 processor with the Hyper-Threading Technology and Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005.

Other tech giants, including HP, Fujitsu, Kenwood, Lenovo, Matsushita Electric (Panasonic), NEC CustomTechnica, Nokia, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, STMicroelectronics and Thomson, are angling for a slice of the pie as well.

IBM, Toshiba and the Sony groups said their differentiator is that the multi-thread, multicore architecture Cell chip will support multiple operating systems, including Windows, Unix and Linux as well as real-time consumer electronics and game operating systems. The companies said they are also confident the chip can tackle multi-channel high-definition broadcast programs, as well as megapixel digital still and movie images captured by high-resolution CCD/CMOS imagers.

When it debuts in either late 2005 or early 2006, the processor built using 90 nanometer silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology will also have substantial bus bandwidth to and from the main memory; a flexible on-chip I/O (input/output) interface; real-time resource management system for real-time applications; on-chip hardware in support of security system for intellectual property protection; and energy saving technology.

Engineers from IBM, Sony Group and Toshiba are collaborating on the design at a joint development lab the three companies established in Austin, Texas, after the project was announced in 2001.

IBM plans to begin pilot production of Cell microprocessors at its 300mm wafer fabrication facility in East Fishkill, N.Y. during the first half of 2005. Big Blue said it has already tagged the processor for a workstation it is developing with Sony Entertainment.

Sony said it plans on debuting the processor in home servers and high-definition television (HDTV) systems in 2006. Toshiba said it expects to launch its first Cell-based product, a high-definition television (HDTV), around the same time frame.

The four companies also announced that they would reveal technical details of Cell in four separate white papers at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) in February.