Platform Conference, Day 1

By: Van Smith

Date: January 24, 2002

Emerging as one of the industry's premiere events, the Platform Conference is a venue being embraced particularly by vendors desiring a counterpoint to IDF.  While the industry downturn and the September 11th tragedies greatly impacted the attendance of the Microprocessor Forum, a rival conference that some see as already losing momentum, the industry doldrums have not appeared to have undermined Platform Conference.  Gauging from the overflowing seminars, attendance appears to be strong.


What to Sell When Megahertz Doesn't Matter

A panel discussion led by moderator Dr. Jon Peddie of Jon Peddie Research focused on a problem that AMD has begun to successfully tackle with its "True Performance Initiative."  Including experts from embedded giant MIPS, DSP stalwart National Semiconductors, as well as VIA Technologies and AMD, the panel was in unanimous agreement that the computing industry needed a new metric to reflect true performance merit.

AMD's Patrick Moorhead brought up the cogent issue that historically the government has stepped in whenever an industry was in comparable disarray regarding standards.  "It's wrong when a consumer can purchase a PC for $499 that can outperform another one costing $1299," he said. 

When light bulbs were being sold by wattage alone, there was a great deal of variation in actual light each bulb was producing.  Now there exist stringent government guidelines mandating testing and labeling of the amount of light being emitted, its spectral composition and so forth.  Mr. Moorhead suggested that if the computing industry does not quickly police itself, it might face similarly invasive government intervention.

Whatever the industry does settle on, it must be flexible enough to fairly handle suitability for fixed function devices such as MP3 jukeboxes, Internet appliances, gateways, etc., VIA's Richard Brown added. 

As specialty computers are crafted for specific work, it makes no sense, for instance, to rate a 10GHz processor as being 50-times better than a 500MHz chip at playing MP3s, especially when the faster CPU might require 100-times more power.  How to account for targeted suitability to specific tasks is a sizable challenge the industry must face when tackling emerging performance initiatives.

Although chip making giant Intel is the one notable exception in the push for an industry standard performance scheme over megahertz, the Santa Clara-based company declined an invitation to defend its position and did not send a panel representative the few blocks from its headquarters to the Platform Conference.  However, Intel employees were in the audience


Hammer News

Dispelling recent rumors, AMD confirmed that SSE2 will be included in all Hammer processors, including the Clawhammer, which is scheduled to debut later this year.  The Hammer line will be the world's first 64-bit enabled x86 microchips.  Not only will Hammers be fast, but the move to 64-bits will allow the chips to work in much larger servers demanding vast memory arrays.

Although not providing explicit conformation, responding to another VHJ question, AMD divulged additional information on its direction towards multi-core designs (a multi-core chip has more than one CPU on a die).  The embedded Hammer North Bridge has two CPU interfaces.  As AMD's process technologies move to smaller geometries, multi-core will become increasingly attractive and, thanks to the Hammer North Bridge design, easily achievable.


Memory News

Although DDR333 enabled chipsets are already available, current memory yields are low and quantity production will begin no sooner than Q3 of this year.  DDR400 will not likely happen at all -- at least as far as modules are concerned -- because this speed will not be easy to achieve unless a new core is designed, which, in itself, would be a two year process.  At best, DDR400 is seen as a niche product.

Instead, DDR-2 is expected to pick up at these speeds when it is scheduled to kick off next year.  Experts on a panel headed by Sherry Gerber were in slight disagreement for the DDR II timetable.  Estimates for volume production ranged from 2004 to 2005.

This appears to leave a window of opportunity open for Kentron's Quad Band Memory, a design that can double system bandwidth.  Rumors persist of support for this technology in upcoming mainstream chipsets from major core logic vendors.



Also in attendance at Platform Conference, NVIDIA talked with us about its NV17 mobile 3d graphics controller set to ship next month first in a Toshiba laptop.  NVIDIA told us that NV17 is five times faster than GeForce2Go, while consuming less power.

The Intel neighbor and graphics chip giant also mentioned that sales of its nForce core logic controller are very brisk, with some vendors claiming to be quickly selling out of nForce-powered motherboards. 

The recently announced nForce 415-D (the "D" is for Dolby Digital 5.1) is a core logic controller identical to the nForce 420-D, but has the graphics core disabled.  NVIDIA is seeking price parity with similarly performing products such as the VIA KT266A and expects that nForce 415-D-based motherboards will be available as low as $80-$90 (US).

NVIDIA was also pushing ACR, a flexible next generation riser card standard that is appearing on some of the new nForce-powered motherboards.  ACR is essential to untapping the myriad of integrated features bundled in the feature rich nForce MCP.


Other News

AMD seems to be giving more attention to small form factor, quiet PC designs.  We attended a seminar where the chipmaker discussed developing standards, and showed pictures of a ducted, passively cooled Flex ATX system.

A much more sedate and friendly Rambus was showing off an overclocked Pentium 4 system running with PC1200, a future RDRAM standard expected in a few years.

ASUS is looking at small form factor PCs with this nifty Athlon/Duron design featuring a swing out drive bay.

This neat little ASUS case (we call it "Green Bean")  is about twice as big as the Shuttle SpaceWalker.

We tried to get into a talk on interconnects featuring Gabriele Sartori, the President of the HyperTransport Technology Consortium, but the room was too packed to get in.  However, there are rumors that another CPU maker might be investigating the HyperTransport enabled Hammer bus.


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