Intel Integrates Wi-Fi into Atom Chips

Intel is taking an interesting turn in its quest to advance mobile processors: incorporating Wi-Fi into the same chip.

During the International Solid-State Circuits Conference 2012 (ISSCC 2012) in San Francisco this week, Intel began showing off Rosepoint: Atom-based chips with integrated Wi-Fi modems. It’s an evolution of the company’s system-on-a-chip (SoC) efforts that involve incorporating once discrete subsystems like graphics processing units (GPU), onto the same die.

A die describes a single piece of silicon that forms the basis of a computer chip. SoCs pack more functionality onto the same chip (Wi-Fi in this case) enabling smaller form factors and lower manufacturing costs.

The downside: It’s a research project so don’t expect to see Rosepoint processors soon. Indications are, however, that Intel is serious about commercializing the technology. The first devices may start appearing around 2015, according to a <em>Wired</em> report.

Moore’s Law meets WLANs

According to Intel, Wi-Fi-enabled Atoms are an attempt to knock down “the last few barriers to make digital RF practical for SoC integration.” For the chipmaker, the effort is akin to “enabling Moore’s Law for RF circuits.”

Intel's atom chip next to a pennyInvoking Moore’s Law has become almost obligatory when describing the pace of today’s technology. But it’s not easy bringing WLAN’s analog roots into alignment with the advances in digital processors, according to Intel engineer Yorgos Palaskas. In his blog post, Palaskas said while processors have benefited from Moore’s Law in terms of speed and miniaturization, not so for RF-based technologies.

“This pace is very difficult for RF circuits to maintain: conventional RF design requires accurate transistor models which can take a long time to develop, and the radio might need multiple spins and tweaking to meet performance targets,” writes Palaskas.  Low voltages and “noisy” digital circuits exacerbate the problem.

That Intel is getting ready to show the “first Atom SoC with CMOS WiFi Radio” indicates that the company is not only about to close the book on these issues, but that its sights are set on a mobile market that’s currently dominated by ARM’s technology.

According to Palaskas, “This research indicates that interference mitigation techniques together with the scaling-friendly digital radio architectures of the previous papers could enable new levels of integration, time-to-market and cost targets, creating new opportunities and applications for devices that will ‘connect and enrich the life of every person on earth.'”

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of IT-related websites and as the Green IT curator for GigaOM Pro. Follow him on Twitter @ecoINSITE.


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