Microprocessor makers say they can meet demand for greater processing power and energy efficiency with new technologies aired at a recent industry conference in San Jose, USA.
Processors made from new materials or that can reduce power to individual cores as needed were among the innovations presented at Microprocessor Forum 2007, hosted by the technology research firm In-Stat.
For years, chip makers focused on making faster processors, following Moore's Law -- named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore -- which states that processor power will double every two years. More recently, chip makers have tried to improve energy efficiency, both to lengthen battery life in portable devices and reduce electricity use in servers and other computers. Electricity not only costs money, but generating it causes pollution.
Intel says it can increase performance of a processor but reduce leakage -- electricity that is wasted -- by adding a new layer to the silicon.
It is using a material called "high-k metal gate" instead of silicon dioxide to provide better insulation to reduce leakage. The high-k process, to be used in Intel's upcoming 45-nanometre processor, code-named Penryn, is expected to use 30 percent less power, operate 20 percent faster and leak five times less electricity than a 65nm processor, said Mark Bohr, a senior Intel fellow.
The performance claims could not be verified.
"Moore's Law is alive and well with Penryn," added Stephen Fischer, senior principal engineer at Intel.
Fischer said Penryn will also improve power management, allowing the computer's operating system to reduce power to individual cores if they are not needed at a particular moment.
Intel is also researching teracomputing, in which processors could have as many as 80 cores. That could increase the flexibility to do parallel processing or perform multiple tasks simultaneously, said Jim Held, director of terascale computing research at Intel.
The benefits of teracomputing, still a ways off, depend on the software and the internal memory keeping up with the processing power, said Held.
Another Intel researcher, Ravi Iyer, explained hierarchical memory, in which the chip could assign certain data being computed to the chip's memory based on its importance relative to other data flowing through.
AMD is researching mobile processing platform technology. Its Griffin processor, in the Puma processor package slated for introduction in mid-2008, features processors that power down when not needed, said Maurice Steinman, an AMD fellow. During his slide presentation, Steinman pointed to an image that was on a screen for several seconds. When the image was still, he said, power could be reduced to the processors in the computer running the slide show, but the processors would be powered up when he changed to the next slide.
"You want to be able to operate at the most power-efficient level and not pay for performance that you do not need," Steinman said.
AMD is also developing Fusion, a chip expected in 2009. The Fusion is so named because it is intended to combine a central processing unit (CPU) with a graphics processing unit (GPU), Steinman said.
This innovative research may end the era of processors as commodity products, said Max Baron, an analyst at In-Stat.
This is "fresh intellectual property and very high-end physics," Baron said, and some of the technologies are years away from production.
"We're looking at a process in the making; and while the process is in the making, the prices are higher," he said. "When we see a ramp-up in technology you get a lot of advantages you never had before, but you have to pay for them."
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