backtop


Print 10 comment(s) - last by simsony.. on Feb 22 at 4:40 PM

Project is still in the research phase, but hints at a key shift in the industry

One of the biggest developments of 2011 in the personal computer and mobile device chip-space was the inclusion graphics processing units on-die.  These "systems-on-a-chip" designs (SoCs) meant that for the first time these two critical components were produced on the same silicon die, yielding power savings and the potential for performance gain via unique designs.

At the same time, in 2011 a handful of mobile device makers, such as Qualcomm, Inc. (QCOM), unveiled single-die SoC designs that housed not only a GPU, but also a "baseband processor" -- the tiny radio responsible for communication via the 3G/4G (WiMAX)/LTE standards [technical source].

All of these trends meant one thing -- where you previous had a CPU, GPU, I/O bridge chip, Wi-Fi receiver, and scores of other chips, soon one-chip SoC designs would rule the world of mobile devices.

I. Meet the On-Die Wi-Fi Modem

Intel Corp. (INTC), the world's biggest maker of CPUs for servers and traditional personal computers (laptops, desktops), is a bit behind in the race to push wireless communications circuitry into its SoCs.  But at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference 2012 (ISSCC 2012) Intel is poised to show off [1][2] (PDF) "Rose Point", a 32 nm SoC that integrates a Wi-Fi modem directly on an atom die.

Rose Point
Meet Rose Point, Atom's first try at an on-die modem. [Image Source: Intel]

As they say, every rose has its thorns, and Rose Point was no exception.  Part of the difficulties with the new SoC were inherent -- due to the fact that traditional modem designs incorporate a slew of analog circuit components, such as synthesizers and amplifiers.  These components allow wireless modems to operating on a large range of device voltages, but they also mean that Intel had a heavy redesign on its hands, in crafting its revised silicon modem, which used only two voltages.

And that wasn't the only thorny issue with Rose Point.  Electromagnetic frequency (EMF) interference also proved a key stumbling block for electronics giant.  As the speed of Wi-Fi communications (2.4 GHz) is close to Atom's base CPU's base clock speed, the two portions of the chip would interfere with each other, leading to corruption issues.

Hossein Alavi, director of Intel’s Radio Integration Lab, describes in an interview with Wired, "This radiation seeps into the RF module and corrupts the data.  The closer they are, the more interference is going to go to them."

Intel countered by developing new noise-cancelling technologies and miniature shielding methods, both of which served to cut the harmful EMF levels.

II. Intel Hopes to Beat Qualcomm, et al. to On-Die Analog Circuits

Intel is frank about the advantages of a one-die design such as Rose Point.  Aside from the implied benefit of reduced count of chips in your chipset, Intel's Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner states, "With a digital approach to radio, you can bring the benefits of Moore’s law to RF and radio circuits."

In other words, with an on-die design improved battery life, and faster processing of signals is possible.

Unfortunately for Intel, the chipmaker is pretty far behind.  As mentioned, Qualcomm and others have this technology currently in the one-die chip packages.  EDIT: To clarify, Qualcomm has on-die digital baseband processors ("modems"), but lacks Wi-Fi modems, which require analog-to-digital signal modulation.

Intel, who hopes for its own push in the mobile CPU space, says, according to Wired, that it won't even talk about an on-die radio design for "another year or two."

Likewise, the Wired article cites Intel as saying that its Wi-Fi enabled SoCs won't land until "the middle of the decade", implying a 2014 or 2015 release date.  This is disappointing, as you might think that Intel was closer to bringing the technology to market, considering the 32 nm Atom core which Rose Point is built on just went on sale in late 2011 as part of the Cedar Trail mobile device platform.

The company did confirm to Wired that even earlier stage prototypes of radio modems were being developed in Intel labs.

Intel may have a year or two lead in die-shrinks, but it's at least a year or two behind in SoC design.  Virtually every industry player is moving in this direction, so companies like Qualcomm are not expected to let up, adding Wi-Fi modems on-die shortly.  Intel may be forced to accelerate its roadmap as it has accelerated its mobile chip line's die shrinks, or else risk permanently being locked out of the mobile space.

For its part Intel's engineers are just trying to do their best, coming up with creative solutions to solve the intrinsic difficulties of the unified SoC.

Sources: Intel [1], [2], Wired



Comments     Threshold


This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

RE: clarify please
By JasonMick (blog) on 2/21/2012 10:30:41 AM , Rating: 1
quote:
I'm not really sure what he means by that, since the article he quotes doesn't mention wifi, but rather 3G/4G LTE on-die for qualcomm's MSM. Maybe he confused 3G for wifi?

No -- not confused -- I was specifically referring to Intel's comments on 3G/4G on-die baseband processing. The fact is that Intel doesn't currently have a 3G/4G baseband processor on its mobile chip dies while Qualcomm does. (As I say in the article)

Intel said its on-die baseband wouldn't be ready to even demo in R&D form (according to Wired) for a year or two.

Wi-Fi at this point is an open race, but given that Qualcomm has figured out how to handle 3G interference in a production product, I'd expect it might surprise and beat Intel to the punch in that sector as well, considering Intel's targeting a 2014-2015 release for this tech.


RE: clarify please
By someguy123 on 2/21/2012 5:21:04 PM , Rating: 2
I don't see anything in there about intel commenting on 3G/4G nor producing a 3G chip. The only thing I see is the comment on radiation leak into RF, which in this context is referring to wifi.


RE: clarify please
By someguy169 on 2/21/2012 11:56:52 PM , Rating: 2
Mick,

Correct me if I'm wrong. But aren't most baseband modems digital these days? My understanding is that Infineon's entire business which Intel purchased produces digital processors... even the first generation iphone had a digital baseband processor. My point here is that what intel did with the on-die wifi integration seemes to be a major breakthrough in the sense that wifi chips are predominately analog, and this represents an opportunity to take on the likes of Ti and Broadcom and encroach on their analog chipmaking businesses.

Furthermore, it would seem that integrating digital basebands is far less technically challenging than integrating a traditionally analog RF chip. I haven't read about any technical obstacles to inegrating baseband chips from the likes of qualcomm etc, but I know that Intel has been trying to digitize analog chips for almost a decade now. Feel free to rip me if I'm missing something here.


RE: clarify please
By simsony on 2/22/2012 4:32:23 PM , Rating: 2
Qualcomm's modem baseband is not in die, it is in a single package. Big difference. The snapdragon core die is separate from the modem. I also think they are on different process nodes.

Qualcomm's digital baseband for wifi/bt is so poor, it actually has never been used in any product. Not even n cheapo phones. The press release was the start and the end of it. Every single vendor using a Qualcomm platform is using an external chip. Check any phone you've got!

Whoever shows a demo of it actually working, with RF coexistence issues also resolved, is the one who has actually got it done. Leaving both Intel and Qualcomm at par for now.

You must be careful before believing the marketing hype. Same goes with the S4 core benchmarking. The power profile is important.

PS: daily tech has gone a little pro Qualcomm, but without complete merit, especially this article. Anandtech normally does a good job, but the S4 article was biased. I know Qualcomm is actively trying to transform Snapdragon to a consumer brand line like Athlon/Pentium/Core. You guys have some marketing buddies over there? ;)


RE: clarify please
By simsony on 2/22/2012 4:40:50 PM , Rating: 2
Btw, Intel isn't stupid to be demoing it at ISSC if it weren't that good. All eyes are on them there.

My guess is they have actually achieved the holy grail of true on die integration, requiring only a diplexer, bpf and antenna, in a sampling part. If so Qualcomm should be worried, it is a VERY big deal. They haven't got anything close and were so worried about wifi, Q spent $2b on Atheros, among other reasons.


"Game reviewers fought each other to write the most glowing coverage possible for the powerhouse Sony, MS systems. Reviewers flipped coins to see who would review the Nintendo Wii. The losers got stuck with the job." -- Andy Marken














botimage
Copyright 2014 DailyTech LLC. - RSS Feed | Advertise | About Us | Ethics | FAQ | Terms, Conditions & Privacy Information | Kristopher Kubicki