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How Low Will Big Blue Go with New Chip?

Less than two weeks after it designated its Austin, Texas research lab as the Low-Power Computing Research Center, Armonk, N.Y.'s IBM Corp. unveiled the first installment of a low-power chip family geared to conserve energy.

And like Intel Corp.'s Pentium III processor-M at 1.2 GHz -- which the company claims is the fastest mobile processor currently on the market -- Big Blue's PowerPC 405LP was designed with mobile computing devices in mind, particularly notebooks and other battery-powered devices. IBM and Intel's intent is to save power, thereby driving down costs for customers. IBM hopes to have PowerPC 405LP on hardware vendors' devices by next year.

The key technology driver for IBM is its integrated "system-on-chip" design, which employs special circuitry to conserve power by shutting off portions when not in use. And, perhaps as an incentive to lure enterprises from Intel's new low-power line, the new PowerPC line also includes special processing features to make voice recognition and data encryption software work more efficiently. What the encryption does is allow more secure business transactions.

The 405LP reduces active power by figuring out how much power an application requires and responds by scaling processor performance to an adequate level. The low-power chip offloads processor demands by use of hardware accelerators, and shuts off portions of the device when not in use. The 405LP also includes a mode in which power is pared to almost zero while still providing a quick response to an external stimulus, such as a pen stylus used on handheld devices.

Though not nearly the mass market provider of various chips that Intel or Advanced Micro Devices are, IBM's claim to fame for chips is that it is the No. 1 supplier of ASIC ("application-specific integrated circuit") chips worldwide. Still, IBM said it considers its push "aggressive."

"IBM has outlined an aggressive road-map for next-generation chip technologies for consumer computing products and applications," said Lisa Su, director, Emerging Products, IBM Microelectronics.

While Intel's announcement two weeks ago mixed some new chips with some older but improved chips, Big Blue's announcement follows months of success with low-power products for the enterprise. For instance, IBM has received staunch support for its low-power cause in the form of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA praised IBM for its eServer z900 mainframe, which uses copper wiring and silicon-on-insulator (SOI) -- two technologies that yield cooler-running machines.

Furthermore, Big Blue has developed new chip design techniques to yield further power reductions, which it will reveal at the Microprocessor Forum conference Oct. 17 in San Jose, Calif.