Intel looks to reshape chips to empower mobile devices

The company is looking to implement specialized graphics accelerators and hardware layers

Looking into its crystal ball at where trends are leading, Intel hopes to bolster on-chip capabilities to vastly improve the security and functionality of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.

The company is looking to implement specialized graphics accelerators and hardware layers to secure mobile devices, company executives said. Intel is also laying plans to integrate sensors and accelerators to measure temperature or quality of air, or check speed, distance traveled and location.

The advent of mobile devices has given rise to movement-and environment-related applications that may not be useful on stationary devices such as PCs, said Dadi Perlmutter, vice president of the Intel Architecture Group, during an interview last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The integrated sensors and accelerators on mobile devices will feed real-time data that could help users make decisions and organize schedules, Perlmutter said.

"[Users] would like to have a lot of information about context. A context could be measuring the speed or measuring the temperature," Perlmutter said.

Intel's researchers are already developing an array of sensors for smartphone-type devices to measure air quality. A mobile toolkit carries carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and ozone sensors to measure air quality, and targets the most common toxic gases people encounter.

But the addition of sensors, accelerators and security hardware is a multiyear integration effort, and needs to be balanced with power consumption of devices and software enablers, Perlmutter said.

For smartphones and tablets, Intel currently offers integrated chips -- also called system-on-chips -- that include CPUs and separate cores for functions such as media encoding and decoding. For example, Intel's low-power Oak Trail tablet chip includes a CPU and a separate accelerator that enables devices to play 1080p high-definition video. But the company wants to rope those features inside CPUs, which could happen as it shrinks chips.

The key to cramming more features inside CPUs is to add more transistors, which could make chips more functional, said Shekhar Borkar, research fellow at Intel.

"It's all about integration," Borkar said, adding that memory, cache and floating point units -- which once resided outside -- have been integrated into CPUs over time.

Intel upgrades to a new manufacturing process every two years, and invests billions to improve its factories. The company later this year will start producing chips on the 22 nanometer manufacturing process, which are faster and more power-efficient than chips made using the current 32-nm process

Intel has already said it would add 3G and 4G radios to future mobile chips, and last month completed the acquisition of Infineon's wireless unit, from which it will get radio technology. The company is also in the process of acquiring security vendor McAfee, which will help blend advanced hardware and software security to protect mobile devices from internal and external threats.

The company hopes that integrating more features will ultimately help it take market share from Arm, which currently dominates the tablet and smartphone markets. In addition to Oak Trail tablet chips, Intel this year plans to ship the Medfield chip for smartphones.

In the future the CPUs will be unrecognizable compared to what they are today, said Perlmutter, who is charged with designing future Intel chips. He said a CPU won't be known as a "central processing unit," but as a "central platform unit." He said Intel made big progress with the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture, which is the first time the company put a CPU and graphics processor on a single chip.

"It's kind of an expansion of the [integration of] the CPU and GPU. If everything goes on to one device, then new capabilities, new opportunities come about," Perlmutter said.

Mobile devices are now also targets for hackers and Intel is focused on bringing more security elements to chips that not only help authenticate users, but also isolate and resolve attempts to steal information. If a device mostly depends on software, it's easy to break into the system as information transferred across the memory, CPU or chipset could be easily accessible, Perlmutter said.

Smartphones are storing more personal information and being used for bank transactions, and the information needs to be protected, Perlmutter said. The integrated security hardware could store passwords or capture voice, fingerprints, eye images or pictures to identify users. Beyond authenticating users, security chips could scramble data transferred over wired or wireless networks.

In addition, the company is pouring funds into research as it tries to fine-tune mobile chips and develop software to deliver better visual experiences. There is a growing demand for high-quality graphics on mobile devices with more users playing games and watching high-definition movies.

The company bundles graphics chips with its processors, which has made it the world's largest graphics vendor. But Intel has been criticized for inferior products compared to rivals Advanced Micro Devices and Nvidia, which offer better graphics capabilities in their chips for PCs and mobile devices.

Intel has taken steps to improve graphics with its Oak Trail tablet chip, which includes an accelerator to play back high-definition 1080p video. The company is also looking to move features such as the ability to secure movie streaming from PC chips into mobile chips.

Intel is also creating software tools that enable interactive graphics, such as 3D images that can react to human gestures, Borkar said. There are already some programming frameworks such as OpenCL and DirectX 11 that harness the processing power of CPUs and graphics processors, but Intel hopes to gain insight into new programming models that achieve throughput computing and blur the lines between the CPU and graphics processor, Borkar said.

Intel last month announced it would invest US$100 million in U.S. universities over the next five years to drive research around areas including graphics. It's launching a new research center called the Intel Science and Technology Center for Visual Computing to bring more realistic and interactive 2D and 3D graphics experiences to users over PCs and mobile devices. Intel will collaborate with eight U.S. universities including Stanford, University of California at Berkeley, Cornell, Princeton, the University of Washington, Harvard, University of California at Davis, and University of California at Irvine.

Borkar said Intel's research plans were not set in stone, and that it would be best to leave options open on what kind of chips and programming models would emerge in the future.

"The hard part with the research is ... what would it look like eight years from now?" Borkar said.

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