Trends From IDF 2009: Smaller, Faster, With Intel Everywhere

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The yearly Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco is a great place to catch up on not just the chip giant's plans but also the entire trajectory of the PC and consumer electronics industries. Dominating the 2009 show were the usual announcements and demos of "smaller and faster." If this year's gathering saw any significant difference, it was Intel's vision of x86 IA (Intel Architecture) chips everywhere, in PCs, mobile Internet devices, phones, TVs, set-top boxes--you name it.

The show had no shortage of PC-centric announcements, of course. High-end Core i7 chips for laptops made their debut. More interesting were demos of "the 'dales," Arrandale and Clarkdale, the future Nehalem architecture CPUs based on Intel's new 32-nanometer manufacturing process. Clarkdale, the new dual-core desktop platform, pairs the 32nm CPU with a 45nm graphics chip in a single package. Integrating the two into a single chip allows Intel to run the graphics part faster than if those functions were still in the motherboard chipset, since the CPU has more-aggressive cooling.

More important, the new design brings down costs by making motherboards cheaper to manufacture (the motherboard chipset chip is primarily just an I/O controller with Clarkdale). Arrandale, the laptop variant, is similar to Clarkdale but has lower clock speeds and reduced power usage. The processor that Intel is using in both Arrandale and Clarkdale adds new AES-NI instructions, which can dramatically speed up encryption software. The first of these products is expected to debut late this year, with others to follow in early 2010.

Intel's 32nm "Westmere" CPU and GPU combo chip, the foundation of the Arrandale and Clarkdale platforms.
Intel's 32nm "Westmere" CPU and GPU combo chip, the foundation of the Arrandale and Clarkdale platforms.
Intel works according to what it calls the "tick-tock" development scheme. In the "tick" portion Intel shrinks its existing processor architecture by producing chips through a new manufacturing process; this step makes it possible for Intel to squeeze more on a chip (which results in better performance), or to produce chips with the same performance that are smaller, cooler, less power-hungry, and cheaper. In the "tock" phase, Intel introduces a completely new chip architecture but uses the same, now-mature manufacturing process that it used to manufacture the "tick" products. The Westmere CPU found in Arrandale and in Clarkdale is Intel's "tick."

At the gathering, Intel demonstrated a working prototype of the upcoming "tock" in its tick-tock scheme. Code-named Sandybridge, it is to be a new CPU architecture with graphics integrated into the same piece of silicon as the CPU, produced in a 32nm manufacturing process and targeted for release in late 2010. Intel hasn't said much about Sandybridge, except that it adds the new AVX ("advanced vector extensions") instructions, which should improve the performance of math-intensive applications. Though Clarkdale and Arrandale put graphics and the CPU on the same chip package, they're separate pieces of silicon--those products are technically a "mutlichip package" even though, from the user's perspective, it's one "chip" with a single heat spreader covering everything. Sandybridge will finally integrate the items into a single piece of silicon, further speeding up Intel's integrated graphics and providing greater power and cost savings.

Intel CEO Paul Otellini holds up a wafer of 22nm SRAM chips.
Intel CEO Paul Otellini holds up a wafer of 22nm SRAM chips.
Just to hammer home its leadership position in chip fabrication, Intel showed a working 22nm wafer, filled with static RAM (SRAM) chips (SRAM is often used as a proving ground for new chip-manufacturing technologies). Each SRAM chip has 2.9 billion transistors and holds 364 megabits, roughly twice the density of 32nm counterparts. Of course, the world doesn't use a ton of high-density SRAM; the showing today was just proof that Intel is well on its way to the next silicon manufacturing process, which will again double the amount of stuff that the chip maker can cram into the same amount of space. That means still smaller CPUs, more powerful CPUs of the same size, or CPUs that integrate more of the system's total functionality. Production CPUs made on the 22nm process are expected in late 2011, with Intel's next "tick."

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