NEW BREED OF CHIP TI develops a super circuit


DALLAS -- The playing field is about to shrink inside the personal computer.

In a few weeks, analysts expect, Texas Instruments Inc. will announce and set firm dates for the delivery of its first general-purpose microprocessors for standard personal computers.

That, they say, will be the tip of Texas Instruments' plans to commercially introduce a new type of densely packed electronic circuit that informally is called a "mother chip."

In a single microchip, TI will try to combine all the operations currently performed on a variety of general- and special-purpose microprocessors found inside computers.

This new breed of chip will be built around the kind of core microprocessor that serves as the brain of desktop and portable computers. But surrounding that core will be circuitry previously contained in chips that separately processed video images, manipulated graphics, provided connections to computer networks and other functions.

The result will be more speed, less weight and less power consumption in a smaller space. "All those good kinds of things you get when you begin to lower the size of things," said David Harter, chief executive officer of Bermac Communications Inc., an Irving, Texas, integrator of computer equipment and programs. "The smaller you go, the better things get."

In effect, TI will be trying to squeeze onto a single chip most if not all of the contents of the main printed circuit board in a personal computer.

Such panels, typically called "motherboards," contain the microprocessor and all the chips used for controlling components that come with a computer system, such as the keyboard, display, pointing devices, joysticks and such. The board also includes pathways that connect those chips to circuits that lead to the various components in a system.

Intel Corp., the market leader in microprocessors, has long called the concept the "semicomputer." TI has in recent years re

ferred to its approach as a "system-on-a-chip," to distinguish it from the concept of a "computer-on-a-chip."

The "computer-on-a-chip" itself was regarded as a breakthrough two decades ago, when circuit designers managed to put a processor, memory cells, a clock and some control logic all onto a single chip. The concept of "mother chips" is a descendant of that breakthrough, packing even more capabilities into the brains of computers.

The first obvious target for such "mother chips" will be in those computers that are pushing the edge of compactness, such as palm-top computers, said Wally Rhines, executive vice president of TI's Semiconductor Group.

But TI envisions its approach being applied to a wide range of equipment, from cellular phones to workstations to automobiles.

The approach has been executed in communications already, where TI has a dominant position in microprocessors that convert sound waves into digits and manipulate them. Where a few years ago, TI focused on providing general-purpose digital signal processors, it now is providing customers tools that allow them to tailor new generations of processors to the specific needs of their products.

In effect, TI supplies methodology and manufacturing. An equipment designer pulls a core microprocessor from a library of different circuit patterns and places it in the middle of the new circuit. Then, the designer pulls other components from that library and places them in the "mother" design. After that, it's mainly a process of tying up the web of lines that must cross between the different parts of the overall chip. TI then makes the chips, based on the final design.

The idea is to increase the custom content of the brains of rTC electronic equipment. Eventually, the high-volume, standard set of microprocessors that are sold into personal computers, for example, could be replaced with an uncountable number of processors. In hardware, a company might retain only those parts of the core microprocessor that it needs to perform tasks in, for example, a coffee pot, and add those parts that it needs in one chip. Within a line of coffee pots, differences could be programmed and stored in memory circuits.

"All the technology is in place at TI to do that," said Dean McCarron, vice president of technology at In-Stat Inc., a Scottsdale, Ariz., research firm. "The question is, how far along are they?"

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