Intel launched its new embedded x86 system-on-a-chip (SoC) today, and in doing so, moved a small step closer toward eventually competing head-to-head with ARM. Formally, the new SoC platform is known as the Intel EP80579 Integrated Processor Family, but the project was code-named Tolapai, and that name trips off the tongue more readily. Tolapai isn’t just a new integrated SoC; it’s Intel’s first volley into a mobile and “embedded” market space that the company believes will grow enormously in the coming years. Unlike how ARM and other companies use the term, when Intel talks about “embedded systems,” the company isn’t just referring to point-of-sale terminals or industrial applications, but to a category of what it refers to as mobile Internet devices (MIDs).
Wireless networking technology will one day deliver high-definition video content and other large data files via the airwaves far faster than that information can be now be delivered over wired systems. But it will take major advances in the electronics that drive computer and radio-frequency systems to create such a high-powered wireless highway.
One of the most basic examples of such a system is a laptop computer equipped with a radio for wireless connectivity. The computer’s performance has generally been improved through upgrades in digital semiconductor performance: shrinking the size of the semiconductor’s transistors to ramp up transaction speed, packing more of them onto the chip to increase processing power, and even substituting silicon with compounds such as gallium arsenide or indium phosphide, which allow electrons to move at a higher velocity.
The key to squeezing higher performance out of the radio side of the equation, according to one company, is using metal-insulator components. “We are potentially at another stepping point, where instead of solid-state semiconductor electronics, we will have metal-insulator electronics,” says Garret Moddel, chief technology officer and chairman of Phiar Corporation in Boulder, Colo.