Intel's Embedded Processors Destined for New Gadgets

The Intel EP80579 microprocessor is the first of a new generation of embedded processors designed to power a range of devices from television set-top boxes to mobile Internet devices to telecommunications infrastructure.

Intel is gearing up to offer a new line of embedded microprocessors for a future generation of gadgets that include mobile Internet devices, high-definition televisions and even large systems that power telecommunications infrastructure.

On July 24, Intel will debut the first of eight new SOC (system on a chip) processors under the name of Intel EP80579 Integrated Processor. These SOC chips are based on Intel Architecture, specifically the Pentium M core, and are smaller and use less power than previous generations of Intel embedded processors.

Later, Intel will incorporate the processing core used in its Atom chip for low-cost notebooks and mobile Internet devices, or MIDs, into the embedded processor line.

In a talk earlier in 2008, Intel CEO Paul Otellini said the company would pursue four different fields that each have the potential to be worth $10 billion in sales. One of those areas included MIDs, which Intel is addressing with Atom. Another area, which is closely related to MIDs, is the embedded market.

In the past, the embedded market had been relegated to devices such as POS (point of sale) machines, storage systems and other custom-designed hardware that needed specific technology but did not require a significant upgrade in processing power.

Now Intel is betting that as demand for the Internet continues to grow, a large group of users will want new types of wireless and mobile gadgets with the same type of processing power, application and operating system support as a PC and that allow for around-the-clock access to the Web from any location, be it at home, on the road or in an office.

At the base of these new devices is Intel Architecture. Intel is looking to unify this new embedded market around a common x86 processor architecture and software instructional set, said Jim McGregor, an analyst with In-Stat. In this case, devices ranging from new types of consumer electronics to servers that create a telecommunications network will all use the same basic architecture.

"Intel is trying to take the x86 architecture and the ecosystem, which includes the software, tools and everything else, and bring that into just about any application," said McGregor. "If you could take the x86 and the application, one thing you could do immediately is solve all of the incompatibility problems we have between all these different devices we carry around. ... Intel is trying to take x86 into a bunch of new markets."

In order for this market to emerge, a few critical items have to fall into place.

Intel is handling how these devices will be built by creating SOC chips that will be smaller and use less power but have enough processing ability to handle rich media content and video. The first of these chips will use about 100 million transistors, and that will increase in the next several years.

"The user expectation of their experience is growing," said Gadi Singer, vice president of Intel's Mobile Group. "That is driving a multitude of functions and capabilities that are required for that, including performance, power, specific usages ... and if those capabilities get integrated on single chips over the next five years we can see the progression of these devices could get a billion transistors embedded in an SOC."

Then there has to be enough inexpensive wireless broadband in place to support data connectivity of 100M bps. This can be done through either WiMax, which is being tested in Asia right now, and in which Intel has a huge investment, or through 4G wireless networks.

Finally, Intel will now expand its life-cycle support for these embedded SOC chips for seven years. Since vendors in the embedded space do not typically update their product designs for years, these manufacturers want long-term commitments from Intel that support whatever chip they decide to use with their devices.

The first of the Intel EP80579 SOC embedded processors will include the Pentium processing core, a memory controller and an I/O hub controller that are combined on the same piece of silicon. Some of the chips will also include a fourth component called Intel QuickAssist, an accelerator technology that can be used to create security appliances for VPNs or voice applications for VOIP devices.

The SOC processors will have clock speeds that range from 600MHz to 1.2GHz and work within power envelopes of 11 to 21 watts. The SOC die package will measure 37.5 millimeters square, which will allow vendors to use smaller motherboards to create more compact devices.

Right now, Intel has about 15 different SOC projects underway for the embedded market. The first of these will include "Canmore," an embedded chip based on x86 architecture for high-definition televisions. Canmore will be available later in 2008 and will be followed by "Sodaville," in 2009.

Intel will also release its "Moorestown" platform for MIDs in 2009, which will incorporate some of these new SOC features. That platform will also feature a new processor called "Lincroft," although Intel did not release any details on the new chip.