CES 2011: System on a chip makes waves

The idea of low-cost computing has come a step closer with leading chipmakers Intel and AMD both offering processors that combine several PC devices on a single chip.

The idea of low-cost computing has come a step closer with leading chipmakers Intel and AMD both offering processors that combine several PC devices on a single chip.

The so-called system on a chip (SoC), should enable PC makers to cut the price of hardware and portable devices, such as tablets, that are capable of running PC software. Experts predict the new chipsets could lead to low-cost PCs with improved battery life.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2011) in Las Vegas, AMD unveiled the Fusion family of accelerated processing units (APUs) to power next-generation HD netbooks. The Fusion chip combines on a single die design:

● a multi-core CPU (x86)

● a DirectX 11-capable discrete-level graphics and parallel processing engine

● a dedicated high-definition video acceleration block

● a high-speed bus.

AMD said that tablets and embedded designs based on Fusion APUs would be available from the first quarter of 2011. The new range of product features include stutter-free HD video playback and all-day battery life.

Rick Bergman, senior vice-president and general manager of AMD Products Group, said, "In one major step, we enable users to experience HD everywhere as well as personal supercomputing capabilities in notebooks that can deliver all-day battery life. It's a new category, a new approach, and opens up exciting new experiences for consumers."

Also previewed at the show was Intel's second-generation Core processor family, formerly codenamed Sandy Bridge. While initially targeting consumer PCs, the chipset will find its way into the enterprise eventually, offering business users the chance to run high-definition videos and presentations.

Andrew Buss, service director at Freeform Dynamics, said corporate organisations would be slower to move to the new chipset than consumers. "This is a significant upgrade," he said. "In the long term this is the solution enterprise will go to once the platform has been validated to support it."

Buss warned that IT departments would be challenged by validating changes, ensuring operating system support and introducing applications to take advantage of the chipset's features. "Enterprises need to wait for it to be stable and mature before rolling out on a large scale," he added.

In the real world, both devices will need application support.

Windows everywhere

In his keynote address at CES, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer highlighted that the next version of Windows would be the first to run on ARM processors.

Windows 8 will support SoC architectures including ARM-based systems from partners NVidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments as well as x86 systems from Intel and AMD.

"This announcement is really all about enabling a new class of hardware and new silicon partners for Windows to bring the widest possible range of form factors to the market," Ballmer said. He added that SoC support would help meet consumer demand for the full range of capability from any device, including long battery life and rich media experiences.

Even though the next version of Windows is expected only in 2012, the announcement of SoC was made at CES 2011, said Ballmer, to allow Microsoft's partners time to build on the innovation.

Ballmer said Windows had the breadth, depth and flexibility to deliver the next generation of devices through the innovation of Microsoft's partners. "Whatever device you use, now or in the future, Windows will be there," he said.

Adam Leach, principal analyst at Ovum, said the move to ARM's SoC showed Microsoft's commitment to developing tablet devices. "This is an important step," he said. "The penetration of ARM in mobile devices means the ARM chipset is essential [to Microsoft].

"Rather than wait for Moore's Law, Microsoft is making sure it is pushing forward and moving lower into smaller devices. It is being proactive in targeting smaller devices," said Leach.

But Leach warned that businesses would have to wait to reap the benefits. "The lead time is quite long," he said. "For enterprise users to use the mobile chipset or operating system, they will have to wait for manufacturers and OEMs and software support. It will take two years to be productive to make sure that the software is integrated and wrapped up in a product."

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