MONTALVO SYSTEMS, a Silicon Valley upstart chip design firm, is reportedly working on an innovative microprocessor that will be capable of running the same x86 instruction set as chips from Intel and AMD.
Santa Clara, California based Montalvo's new chip will reportedly incorporate multiple cores, but they won't be symmetrical, that is, identical circuitry. Rather, Montalvo's as yet unnamed microprocessor will be an asymmetrical design that contains some full-function, high performance cores along with some other, less capable and lower performance cores, all on the same slab of silicon.
Montalvo expects that its asymmetrical chip design will be able to reduce power consumption by shunting streams of simple instructions to lower performance, less power consuming cores. Conceivably, some applications that enter an idling mode after an initial burst of startup processing might also be moved to lower performance cores, saving power with no discernable impact to user-observable responsiveness.
Asymmetrical cores can also offer higher performance if optimised for certain specialised applications such as video processing, say fans of the architecture.
The Cell processor was the first highly successful example of asymmetrical chip design. It contains one high performance primary processor core, along with a number of "synergistic processing elements" programmable for simpler tasks such as shuttling network traffic or multimedia processing.
The Cell processor is perhaps best known for powering the Sony Playstation 3 games console, but IBM has also put Cell chips into server blades and Toshiba plans to use the Cell processor in TVs and maybe PCs, as Mercury Computer Systems has done.
Montalvo hasn't had any chips fabbed based upon its design yet, but it's said to be looking for applications in portable computers, notebooks, handheld devices and smart phones. If it takes on Intel in the x86 chip market, Montalvo will be joining several firms that tried previously and failed, including Cyrix, Transmeta and Rise. But if it does, the competition will no doubt be good for the industry. µ
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