TimeLabs Chip Tunes PC Performance

The startup is getting ready to offer a digital timing chip it says can boost performance of desktops or extend battery life in notebook PCs.

Timing is everything when it comes to wringing the most out of a PC.

TimeLab Corp., a 4-year-old Andover, Mass., startup founded by researchers from Zoran Corp., a maker of chips for products such as DVD drives, is expected to later this month unveil TotalClock, a digital clock chip it says replaces the traditional timing gear for PCs—chips called phase-locked loops—and fosters improvements by better regulating chips speeds.

The startup says TotalClock can regulate the clock speed of PC processors and other components, such as buses that shuttle data and memory, on the fly.

Its goal is to replace phase-locked loop chips with the TotalClock chip, which it says can better regulate the speed of PC hardware and thus boost desktops performance and or extend battery life in notebooks.

Although theyre given little thought by anyone but PC makers or enthusiasts, PLLs (phase-locked loops) have a huge effect on the performance of PCs, one analyst said.

"One of the issues with [a PLL] is its really good for providing stable timing signals, but its not good at changing those signals," said Dean McCarron, analyst at Mercury Research Inc. "The difference is you are limited to a very select few frequencies that you can drive the clocks at, and you generally dont change them when the computers running."

PLLs, in addition, must make relatively large jumps between frequencies, and their signals become unstable for a short time in between those steps. Processors, so as to not act on an unstable signal, halt briefly while the change takes place.

The TotalClock chip, on the other hand, makes smaller adjustments that allow processors to continue operating—something that by itself can improve performance—and at the same time change speeds on the fly.

"Here youre talking about the ability to vary the clocks and theoretically vary the computers performance," McCarron said.

Indeed, aside from setting the pace for a processor, TotalClock can also tune the frequencies of components, such as memory, up or down in order to boost their performance or save on power consumption. Where turning up the speed would yield some extra performance in a desktop, turning it down would cut power consumption of parts inside a notebook, said Carlos Bielicki, TimeLabs CEO.

Most PLL-based approaches "focus only on the CPU," Bielicki said, whereas TotalClock "addresses all aspects of a system. So you dont have the problem where the CPU has to stop executing or is knocking downstream components out of sync."

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Like all startups, TimeLab is looking to hit it big, and the company says it believes its timing is good. Bielicki said, "Now that [computers] need to control frequency in a finer way, [the PLL] has run out of gas."

TimeLab is eyeing the PC market, which is expected to grow to about 200 million units in the next few years. Its chip, whose price he did not name, will cost more than the average PLL, which sells for about $1. But the company is betting its added functions and add-ons will catch on with computer motherboard manufacturers and brand-name PC makers.

TimeLab rounds out its pitch by pairing its chip with software, which could be used by motherboard makers or notebook sellers to allow customers a means of controlling the speed of the chips inside a PC.

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Although the way its implemented will vary by depending on the aims of each individual manufacturer that incorporates the TotalClock chip, its companion software could be used to offer multiple performance modes for a computer. A power-saving setting could be created for notebooks, for example, while desktops could offer performance-improved modes.

The software could also be made to offer a manual mode in which individuals could tune the speed of several various components in a system based on their own tastes.

Using TimeLabs TotalClock chip and software, a motherboard maker could appeal to PC gamers and other enthusiasts who seek to squeeze the most performance possible from their PCs by overclocking or running their processors faster than the factory setting. The chip and its software could also be used to adjust the performance on other components to match changes to the processor.

TotalClock, on the other hand, can also underclock notebook chips, as slower-running chips consume less energy. The company says tuning down notebooks could result in as much as 40 percent more power savings over and above savings offered by features such as Intel SpeedStep or AMD PowerNow, which lower the speed of processors to cut their power consumption.

"You probably wouldnt get a [first-tier PC maker] to sell this technology on the merits of overclocking," Mercury Researchs McCarron said. However, for "power saving or something like that, they might go for it."

TimeLab, which wont be without competition from traditional PLL makers, according to McCarron, is sampling the TotalClock chip to potential customers now.

Motherboard makers will be among the first to offer it in their products, although Bielicki said he could not disclose names.

"Theyll probably market them as giving good gaming performance for the Christmas market," he said.

Notebooks, which generally take longer to adopt new technologies, are likely to come next, sometime in 2006, he added.

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