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.
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 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 (PDF) "Rose Point", a 32 nm SoC that integrates a Wi-Fi modem directly on an atom die.
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 is Far Behind in the Game
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. 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.