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TECHNOLOGY

Chips Get Smaller and More Is Put on Them

Electronics: Placing a whole system on a single piece of silicon improves devices' performance and lowers cost. The integration trend shows no signs of slowing.

June 17, 2002|MATTHEW FORDAHL | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Three years ago, as many as 50 chips would have been needed to handle the features built into Ericsson's new T66 cell phone. Today, four slivers of silicon do the job.

As a result, the phone is among Ericsson's smallest and most powerful, one of a generation of devices integrating functions that used to require multiple gadgets.

And the phone is on the market now--not stuck on the drawing board.

"It's a classic example of the system-on-a-chip approach," said Lewis Chew, chief financial officer of National Semiconductor Corp., the Santa Clara-based company that supplied the chips. "We took all the radio, digital processing, power management and the audio and put it on the four chips."

The semiconductor industry has always managed to squeeze more features onto smaller pieces of silicon, but this integration is leading to remarkable results.

Complete systems now can be built on a piece as small as a match head, allowing cell phones to act like palm-size computers and small hand-held devices to work as phones.

These systems-on-a-chip, which usually aren't advertised to consumers, also are behind smaller set-top TV boxes that can handle both video and Web surfing, powerful video game consoles and the latest, Internet-capable video recorders.

If an electronic device is faster, smaller and cheaper, it's probably more integrated than previous generations.

Though the semiconductor industry suffered its worst downturn ever in 2001, this integration shows no signs of slowing.

Intel Corp., for instance, is working on adding radio to every chip it makes. This innovation could usher in an era of computing in which all devices--from hand-helds to PCs--are seamlessly and always connected.

Wireless is but one of the features being integrated on individual chips. Advanced power management, video encoding and audio processing also are being added like so many Lego blocks.

It's not just consumer electronics.

IBM Corp.'s new Cu-08 technology, whose first customer is expected to be networking giant Cisco Systems Inc., allows voltage to be altered within individual chip components. This can reduce power by supplying only the functions that are in use at any given moment.

These advances are not limited to servers, routers, PCs and cell phones. They're changing everything silicon touches, from car parts to dishwashers to electronic doorknobs in hotels.

"Most of the public doesn't realize it, but there have been far more non-PC computer chips sold for the last several years than PC chips," said Richard Doherty, director of research at the Envisioneering Group.

This improved performance is a simple matter of physics. In older systems, the chip handling the computations sends data electrons to memory chips or to other chips interacting with the outside.

Integrating the functions shortens the electrons' travel distance. That means faster performance on less power--whether it's an MP3 player or an Internet router. Having fewer chips also cuts costs and allows companies to bring products to market more quickly.

A general-purpose computer microprocessor, such as a Pentium from Intel or an Athlon from Advanced Micro Devices Inc., takes years to design, build and test. But consumer gadgets are designed in much shorter cycles and often need to run only a single operating system.

System-on-a-chip growth has bolstered semiconductor firms that sell designs for processor cores that can be plunked into a die and combined with other functions.

Such companies, which include Britain's ARM Holdings and MIPS Technologies, saw sales grow 25% last year to $892 million, according to Gartner Dataquest.

By comparison, overall semiconductor sales fell nearly 32% in 2001.

Even processors no longer used in new PCs, such as Motorola Inc.'s 68000 model, have found new lives as cores.

But building a single chip from disparate parts can be tricky--both technically and legally.

Testing equipment and validation techniques that work on individual components don't necessarily translate once those pieces are fused in a single piece of silicon, said Ann Harwood, engineering manager for system-on-a-chip architecture for Motorola.

Another challenge is combining analog and digital functions on a single chip.

For a chip to communicate with the real world, it must process the many shades of analog information, not just the on-off language of digital data.

"It's kind of like if you wanted to open up a cake shop and you were great at making the batter but you didn't know how to do the frosting," said National Semiconductor's Chew. "Well, you're hosed. If you don't have analog technology in your own company, no one else is going to give you that."

Pat Gelsinger, Intel's chief technology officer, says his company still faces technical hurdles in squeezing radios onto its chips--something it aims to do within 10 years. For one thing, it remains to be seen how the hardware might be upgraded without opening holes for hackers.

"Every step of the way, we can put more in," Gelsinger said. "But we could also be putting the wrong thing in."

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