PCI Building Thinner Interconnect for Handheld Devices

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The PCI-Express standards-setting organization is creating a thin interconnect that would link mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets to external peripherals, the organization's chief said on Monday.

The cable interconnect will enable data transfers between host devices and external devices at speeds of up to 8G bps (bits per second), said Al Yanes, president and chairman of the PCI-Special Interest Group (PCI-SIG). The organization hopes handheld devices equipped with PCI-Express ports will reach the market by 2013.

The PCI-Express protocol is used inside PCs for high-speed data transfers between components and this is the first time the organization is developing interconnect technology for handheld devices, said Yanes, who is also a distinguished engineer at IBM. Consumer handheld and mobile devices ship in larger volumes than PCs and the new technology could expand the horizons of PCI technology. "This will be a new opportunity for us," Yanes said.

The new interconnect will initially use copper wires for data transfers over short distances, with the possibility of upgrading to optical cables in the future. Yanes declined to comment on the type of external peripherals that would benefit from this interconnect, saying details about the specification are still being worked out. High-level goals have been established and the organization hopes to provide further information in the next three months.

The new interconnect would likely mean that devices would need a new port to connect peripherals. It will compete against existing technologies such as USB, which is found in many tablets, and Thunderbolt, an interconnect technology developed by Intel and Apple that will reach handhelds in the future. Thunderbolt already supports PCI-Express, but PCI's new mobile interconnect is independent of Intel's technology, Yanes said.

"[Intel's] doing their thing," Yanes said. "We build technology because our members want it."

There's been a growing demand for high-performance buses such as Thunderbolt and eSATA in PCs and that trend is also trickling into mobile devices, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

"Targeting low-cost and making it widely licensed is a key ingredient for success," McCarron said. "Given that they are targeting mobile devices, it is a part of the industry that is attracting more development."

PCI-SIG has strong backing with more than 800 members, which could help build momentum around the technology, Yanes said. The interconnect will also be inexpensive for device makers to license and implement, which could further spur adoption of the technology, Yanes said.

The organization is also continuing development of the PCI-Express protocol for internal PC communication. The organization has conducted an initial feasibility study for PCI-Express 4.0, which will enable data transfers at 16 gigatransfers per second, which is double the speed of the PCI-Express 3.0 standard. The finalized specification for PCI-Express 4.0 will likely be released in late 2014 or 2015, roughly four years after the final PCI-Express 3.0 protocol specification was finalized in late 2010.

Products based on the PCI-Express 3.0 protocol will be released later this year, Yanes said. Intel in April said that PCs running chips based on the upcoming Ivy Bridge microarchitecture, which are due next year, would get onboard PCI Express 3.0 support.

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