Future Cells, Future Macs

By John Rizzo  |  Posted 2005-02-23 Print this article Print

The challenges that Apple might face with the Cell processor apply to the first-generation version announced by the Cell consortium. For future evolutions of the technology, all bets are off, analysts said. The Cells architecture is flexible enough to accommodate changes that would make the Cell more attractive to Apple. IBMs current overtures to Apple might be aimed at future evolutions of Cell technologies. "There certainly could be another version of the Cell in the future with a different Power core and a different I/O," Krewell said. This redesigned Cell would mean less work for Apple to get the Mac OS X running efficiently on it than on todays Cell.
On the other hand, it may be just as likely that IBM could move Cell technology into a PowerPC processor, which might make a processor transition even smoother for Apple.
"The Cells Broadband Processor Architecture could be rejiggered to be used in other processors, including the PowerPC," Krewell said. Neither of these scenarios could occur overnight. Krewell estimated that it would take IBM at least two years, possibly longer, to come up with a Mac-friendly Cell or a "cellified" PowerPC. So, what of Merrill Lynchs Cell-based Mac multimedia workstation? There is another possibility, the analyst suggested. "The Cell is good for ray tracing, graphics and video editing [applications]," Krewell said. "Its possible that Apple would do a media PC with the Cell as a second media processor. The Cell could be very useful for this." With the Cell as a coprocessor, Apple would not have to port and optimize all of Mac OS X. It could offload certain graphics, video and other functions to the Cell, which also would reduce the utilization of the main processor. The Quartz Extreme routines in the current "Panther" version of Mac OS X, as well as the forthcoming Core Image and Core Video Xcode components in the "Tiger" version, offload tasks to a range of graphics coprocessors. Click here to read more about Tigers graphic architecture and features. Still, Apple might have to wait for a future generation of the Cell in order to make this work, Krewell said. As a coprocessor, the Cells core and I/O would require less developmental resources from Apple. However, that savings would bring a cost on the hardware side of the system. Certainly, two processors are more expensive than one. However, Krewell said that the first-generation Cell might cost more than the CPU used in todays dual-PowerPC G5 Power Macintosh models. Since Sony will sell more PlayStation 3s than Apple can move Power Macs, Apple wont receive the same unit pricing as Sony. The Cells size also makes it more expensive than the G5. If todays Cell were used, the coprocessor would have four times as many transistors as the main processor—234 million in the Cell and 58 million in the G5. For many applications, this level is more than is needed or justifiable for a coprocessor. One way to eliminate transistors, and therefore to lower cost, in a future Cell would be to use fewer synergistic processing units. Die size and costs could be further lowered if IBM manufactured the chips using a 65nm process instead of the 90nm process of todays Cell and PowerPC processors. Of course, Apple is now as much about handheld devices as it is about desktop computers. IBM pitches the Cells scalability to a variety of devices, pointing to Sonys gaming platform, Toshibas televisions and IBMs workstations, as well as handhelds and phones. Most would agree that the iPod just doesnt need the power of a Cell, but what about an expanded iPod that incorporates other functions, such as gaming? Once again, this plan would require a smaller, cheaper implementation of the Cell. Estimates of Cell power usage run from 30 to 80 watts. "IBM says the Cell is air-cooled, which probably means it needs a fan," Krewell said. "They could crank it down to the 3GHz range, but [the Cell] makes no sense in a handheld at this point." Two things seem certain: For the near term, Cell technology wont affect Apple products. And for the longer term, its nearly impossible to tell. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on Apple in the enterprise.


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