Semiconductor designers from International Business Machines, Sony and Toshiba will reveal on Monday the inner workings of a ‘supercomputer on a chip’ they claim could revolutionise communications, multimedia and consumer electronics.
The Cell microprocessor has been under development by the three companies since 2001 in a laboratory in Austin, Texas.
Its unveiling at the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco has been eagerly awaited and products containing Cell including Sony's PlayStation 3 games console are expected as early as next year.
Advance reports suggest the chip is significantly more powerful and versatile than the next generation of micro-processors announced by the consortium's competitors, Intel and AMD.
The two leading chipmakers are just moving from 32-bit to 64-bit computing and to dual-core processors essentially two ‘brains’ on a single chip.Cell is understood to have at least four cores and be significantly faster than Intel and AMD chips.
“This is probably going to be one of the biggest industry announcements in many years,” said Richard Doherty, president of the Envisioneering research firm. “It's going to breathe new life into the industry and trigger fresh competition.”
Cell is being presented as an architecture capable of wide-ranging functions and powerful parallel processing that will allow it to distribute its work among the different cores in order to perform many tasks at once.
The consortium says this will improve the quality of video delivered over the broadband internet and increase the fidelity of computer games. The Cell developers have already produced a prototype of a computer workstation with supercomputer capabilities.
High-definition TVs from Sony and Toshiba, a Sony home server for broadband content and the PlayStation 3 all featuring Cell are due to appear in 2006.
Cell's architecture is described as scalable from “small consumer devices to massive supercomputers”.
The consortium's rivals have questioned whether Cell's potential can be realised and are working on alternative multi-tasking methods. Intel has just brought forward to this year the release on desktop PCs of virtualisation technology known as Vanderpool. This can split a microprocessor into any number of virtual processors to perform different tasks across a network from a central location.
IBM is expected to begin pilot production of the Cell chip at its 300mm wafer plant in New York state in the first half of this year.