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10 years in the making, Intel CTO showcases digital radio chip

by Tarinder Sandhu on 13 September 2012, 20:24

Tags: Intel (NASDAQ:INTC)

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Going gaga over radio

Chief technology officer Justin Rattner closed the annual Intel Developer Forum with a keynote speech on how every device will be connected wirelessly in the future. Such an assumption requires that each device have a built-in radio.

Looking back 10 years' ago Pat Gelsinger, an ex-Intel star and now CEO of VMWare, described how Intel had a vision to integrate radios in all devices, effectively for free. Pat got into trouble for such a sweeping statement, according to Rattner, due to the enormous complexities and cost considerations of integrating analogue radios into ever-smaller chips. Analogue radios - used in WiFi, Bluetooth and 3G/4G chips, et al - don't scale down well with process shrinks, meaning they take up a disproportionately large portion of the die as you move down the nanometre nodes. That said, they remain an integral part of practically any modern computing device.

Digital dreams realised

Rattner outlined that Intel continues to investigate and innovate in radio communications, seeking the holy grail: all-digital radios, where size, power, and cost are, over time, vastly reduced when compared to the implementation of traditional analogue radios. These gains are made possible by using digital filtering and frequency synthesisers instead of their analogue counterparts.

Why the fuss over digital radios, you might ask? Well, if practically every future computing device will have some form of radio, imagine the revenue opportunities of putting your tiny digital radio in every smartphone, tablet, and computer? Heck, radio technology is how competitor Qualcomm makes a large chunk of its money.

Rattner then showed a test wafer with a 32nm Rosepoint system-on-chip (SoC). It's somewhat special because it integrates two Atom cores and a 40MHz digital WiFi radio into one piece of silicon. Stating the obvious and assuming plenty, silicon-level all-digital radio integration means that Intel can sweeten the deal for tablet- and handset-makers by providing the necessary radios at a lower cost than the analogue-reliant competition.

Pat's promise delivered

This Rosepoint-integrated digital radio is performance- and power-comparable to the best analogue radios right now. Rattner expects both of these facets to improve, markedly so, as Intel invests further resources into all-digital radio research. Further, Intel expects that multi-functional digital radios will take up a relatively small part of any future chip. A decade ago Gelsinger quipped that there should be 'radios for free' in Intel hardware. His lofty claim looks to be realised soon.

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Interesting read. There's a small typo in the article though; “32nm Rosepoint system-of-chip (SoC)” should be “system-on-chip”. Cheers ;)