by November 28, 2000 0 comments

Once upon a time, there was this little grain of sand. Being
so tiny, it often got pushed around. One day, it decided to go to the market to
discover its value. Luckily, it was picked up by a creature called Man, and from
then onwards, there was no stopping it. The little grain changed its appearance
to become a beautiful, well-polished disc, and it dressed up with all sorts of
etchings. It started living with other prosperous grains within Integrated
Circuits (IC). They got together in larger, more complex ICs, and even formed
colonies called microprocessors.

The grains prospered within the microprocessor colonies, and
more and more of them managed to live happily within the same microprocessor.
The microprocessors were placed within devices like PCs, notebooks, handhelds,
cellphones, and Internet appliances, all of which were of immense use to Man.

Today, the little grain of sand has everything it could ask
for–fame, fortune, and a great place to live in.

This in short is the making of a microprocessor, and in
general the evolution of semiconductor-based circuits. This year,
microprocessors have achieved remarkable feats which hold immense promise for
the future.

The biggest breakthrough in microprocessors this year is that
they achieved and went beyond the 1 GHz clock frequency. On March 6, AMD
announced the release of its 1 GHz Athlon processor, and two days later Intel
did the same for its PIII. One GHz processors were made possible by reducing the
size of the chip and packing more but smaller transistors in the same space. The
initial 1 GHz processors from both companies were based on the slot
architecture. These required extensive cooling facilities, such as large heat
sinks and lots of fans inside a system housing the processors. However, they’re
now available in a socket design–a change in the processor packaging. As the
magazine goes to press, the market for 1 GHz systems is yet to take off in
India. Possibly, the high prices of these systems are responsible.

Speaking of processor packaging, the other achievement in
microprocessors was that both Athlon and PIII moved from the slot-based
architecture to a socket-based one. Intel moved from Slot 1 to Socket 370 in
FCPGA packaging, while AMD moved Athlon from Slot A to Socket A. The new design
reduced the size of the chip considerably, thereby reducing costs and improving
performance. It also improved heat dissipation. Moreover, the same Socket 370
can be used for Intel’s Celeron processor too, while the Socket A can also
accommodate AMD’s Duron.

Another major player in the microprocessor market this year
was MIPS. But you can’t buy MIPS chips directly. The company is into designing
microprocessor cores and licensing them out to other companies. MIPS processors
have been extremely successful, and you’ll find them in devices as varied as
the Sony PlayStation2 (the game console that created waves in the gaming
industry this year), handhelds (both Palm and PocketPC), and Aibo–(Sony’s
highly popular robotic pet dog).

Transmeta’s Crusoe processor was another significant
breakthrough in processor technology. The processor uses a new design that
allows size reduction and well as more efficient power consumption, which makes
it suitable for use in mobile devices, Internet appliances, etc. The processor
is part software and part hardware. The hardware part understands a new kind of
instruction set called VLIW. The software–also called Code Morphing software–translates
x86 instructions into VLIW. This way, Crusoe remains compatible with most
applications and operating systems on Intel and AMD platforms. Though the
processor was launched in January this year, it hasn’t made any significant
market strides so far. There’s only one known product using the processor–the
Sony VAIO C1 PictureBook notebook computer.

The Cyrix processor made a comeback this year, thanks to VIA.
VIA has been in the news this year, having brought out some very good chipsets,
giving strong competition to Intel. Gradually, however, VIA is also moving into
the processor market. Last year, it took over the Cyrix processor business from
National Semiconductor, and soon afterwards also took over IDT’s Centaur
processor design subsidiary. This year, it combined the two and reintroduced the
Cyrix processor with a different design altogether. The new processor, called
the VIA Cyrix III, is fully compatible with Socket 370 motherboards, has a 256
kB L2 cache, and supports 133 MHz FSB. Though we didn’t hear much about the
processor after its launch this year, it could give Intel’s Celeron and AMD’s
Duron healthy competition in future. And that’s good news for PC buyers.

Intel had its share of bad news this year. First, it had to
recall 820 chipset based SDRAM motherboards. Then it had to recall its 1.13 GHz
PIII processors. On the upside, the latest news is that Intel has achieved 0.13
micron circuitry in integrated circuits. To explain this further, one micron is
one-thousandth of a millimeter, and is used for measuring line width of
circuitry in microchips. To give you a realistic picture, a human hair is said
to be about 50 microns wide. Most modern microprocessors are built using 0.18
micron technology. By making the width smaller, more circuitry can be built in
the same area, and processor speeds will zip into multi-gigahertz as an outcome.
Looks like this technology establishes the continuing validity of Moore’s Law,
which says that the number of transistors per square inch of ICs doubles every

More good news comes with Intel’s new Pentium 4 processor
that has a 400 MHz FSB and runs at 1.4 GHz onwards. The first Itanium processor–the
64-bit processor codenamed Merced–is also getting ready for commercial
release. Merced has been under development for around five years. Hopefully, we’ll
see it in the market next year. Intel’s biggest rival in processors–AMD–also
plans to bring out a similar processor, codenamed SledgeHammer. Unlike the
Itanium, which will be pure 64-bit, this 64-bit processor will be backward
compatible to 32-bit code.

We can’t end the discussion about processors without
talking about the PowerPC. The latest PowerPC processor is the G4, which has
been developed by Apple, IBM, and Motorola. G5 and G6, the future versions of
the G4, –are currently in the pipeline.

The little grain of sand is surely doing wonders for Man.

Anil Chopra

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