PC processor players under threat

Intel and AMD’s combined domination of the PC microprocessor market may be under threat after IBM, Sony and Toshiba this month announced a new high-performance CPU design that looks likely to fire up the industry.

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By  Matthew Wade Published  February 8, 2005

Intel and AMD’s combined domination of the PC microprocessor market may be under threat after IBM, Sony and Toshiba this month announced a new high-performance CPU design that looks likely to fire up the industry. Known as the ‘Cell’, the firms claim their chip will offer faster computing performance than equivalent CPUs from Intel and AMD, and they plan to spend $400 million developing it further over the next five years. Designed to enhance the broadband lifestyle, video gaming and digital home entertainment, Cell is set to be used in Sony’s PlayStation 3, most likely due next year, and Toshiba also plans using it in its own advanced high-definition (HD) TVs (also due for launch in 2006). The 64-bit Cell uses a modular design and is based upon a slightly less powerful IBM CPU than that currently employed by Apple’s G5 64-bit desktop computers. The Cell’s architecture controls no less than eight additional processors, which its design team refers to as Synergistic Processing Elements (SPEs). Each of these is a 128-bit CPU in its own right. "Cell has been optimised for broadband-rich applications," explained Jim Kahle, IBM's director of technology at the Design Center for Cell Technology, the headquarters in Austin, Tex., for the I.B.M., Sony and Toshiba partnership. Some industry executives and analysts in the US already believe Cell's impact could be huge and that it could help fight off the PC’s gradual move into our living rooms. "There is a new game in town, and it will revive an industry that has been kind of sleepy for the last few years," Richard Doherty, a computer industry analyst, told the NY Times. In recent times PC microprocessor manufacturers have largely given up working on new CPU designs, concentrating instead on using the extra space available on the latest chips to add performance enhancing multiple processors. Intel, for instance, recently announced that it had completed initial production runs of dual-core Pentium processors and has been also being talking up ‘Montecito’, its new 90nm dual-core Itanium 2 CPU. There is also now industry speculation over whether Apple might become a partner in the Cell alliance in the future. Because the firm is already the biggest customer for the PowerPC chip, it would be relatively simple for it to switch to using the Cell.

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