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Tiny cellular connection could also be valuable for many industrial and medical applications

Intel on Tuesday published a blog which on the surface appears to simply be more hype surrounding the "internet of things" (IoT) -- internet-connected household items, such as smart appliances.  But digging deeper, this modem announcement has exciting implications for tablets and mobile devices as well, and could boost Intel's sluggish mobile sales.
 
If you look at the modern smartphone or tablet motherboard, aside from memory, the majority of the chips you see are dedicated to the cellular and other wireless (Wi-Fi, etc.) transmission technologies.  
 
Having combined the CPU, GPU, image coprocessor, bridge controls, and other components into a single "system-on-a-chip" (SoC) die, top x86 chipmakers (Intel Corp. (INTC), Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD)) and ARM Holdings plc (LON:ARM) allied chipmakers (Qualcomm, Inc. (QCOM), NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA), Apple, Inc. (AAPL), and Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KRX:005930)) are trying to figure out the next step in circuit consolidation.
 
The most obvious is perhaps adding memory (DRAM, etc) and/or storage (NAND flash) to the SoC.  Indeed, Intel has already toyed with this approach (embedded DRAM) with its new Iris graphics Core Series processors.  Other chipmakers are also eyeing at least packaging memory and storage into a single package, even if they can't squeeze it all into one die.  
 
But that still leaves the thorny issue of the wireless components.
 
Qualcomm in some regards led the way on the digital processing side of the wireless chain, incorporating the so-called "baseband" processors directly into the SoC.  Intel's latest smartphone Atom processors also incorporate the baseband processor on die.  But what's next?
 
Intel hinted at that today, with the release of the XMM 6255.  This tiny HSPA 3G modem is about 1.5 times the size of a U.S. penny.
 
Intel XMM 6255

Intel says it is the world's smallest 3G modem.  It is capable of downlink speeds of up to 7.2 Mbps (Megabits-per-second) and uplink speeds of up to 5.6 Mbps.  It is comprised of four integrated circuits, which compose the full analog+digital 3G cellular sending+receiving chain, plus memory (as a multi-chip package (MCP)) on a 300 mm2 printed circuit board.
 
Aside from the memory chip there's the X-GOLD 625 baseband processor (as this is designed for connected devices, which typically don't have higher-end Intel or Qualcomm SoCs with built-in baseband).  Aside from the size, the other key innovation of the XMM 6255 is its inclusion of a single chip solution that acts as a power amplifier and the RF transceiver.  This chip is called the SMARTI UE2p.  It implements both the analog-to-digital (receive) and digital-to-analog (send) conversions, effectively eliminating one chip from the standard 3G chipset. A final chip acts as an isoplexer, cleaning up incoming signals, and isolating incoming and outgoing signals from each other.

Intel XMM 6255

Intel has taken a couple of additional steps to make this chip friendly to so-called "internet of things" (IoT) devices, such as smart appliances and connected cars.  First, its put all the power management circuitry necessary to power the sending and receiving circuitry on the PCB package, cutting power consumption and safeguard the sensitive electronics from voltage spikes.  Second, it's optimized the 3G transmit chain to work as optimally as possible in places with weak signal such as basements or parking garages (which, as you can imagine, might come in handy for a connected car or dishwasher).
 
While Intel is primarily promoting this as an IoT innovation for the smart appliances space, smartphone and tablet fans should also take note, as Intel's Atom processors will likely look to leverage this new technology to cut down the integrated circuit count in their cellular chipsets, as well.  Intel is also working on another angle of consolidation -- incorporating on-die Wi-Fi RF transceiver/power amplifier technology into its SoCs with a similar effort called "Rose Point".

Source: Intel [blog]





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