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Intel looks to reshape chips to empower mobile devices

Chips could feature specialised 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 specialised 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.

The integrated sensors and accelerators on mobile devices will feed real-time data that could help users make decisions and organise 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 22nm manufacturing process, which are faster and more power-efficient than chips made using the current 32nm 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 unrecognisable 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.

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