IBM, Sony, Toshiba to unveil 'Cell' chip

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The highly anticipated microchip that will power the Sony PlayStation 3 video game system will be described in detail for the first time Monday by its developers, IBM, Sony Corp. and Toshiba Corp.

Dubbed a "supercomputer on a chip," the Cell microprocessor has until now been long on ambition but short on specifics. At a technical conference here, the three electronics giants say they plan to disclose the inner workings of the chip, which is designed to run portable electronics, home entertainment devices and powerful computers.

Aimed squarely at the "digital home" market highly sought-after by Intel Corp. (Research), the Cell initiative, which has been in development for more than three years, is viewed by some as a formidable, if fledgling, competitor to the world's largest chip maker.

The Cell chip will appear in the PlayStation 3, the follow-on to Sony's (Research) successful video game console that is expected to be released next year. Cell will likely also be marketed as an ideal technology for televisions and supercomputers, and everything in between, said Kevin Krewell, the editor in chief of Microprocessor Report.

Cell "promises to be a very exciting challenge to mainstream processors," Krewell wrote in a recent issue, naming it the best chip technology of 2004, remarkable if only for the fact that no one has actually seen the chip in action.

According to released details, Cell is based on the core of IBM's (Research) existing Power processor line, which is used in desktop PCs made byApple Computer Inc. (Research) Cell contains multiple cores, allowing it to perform like many chips in one.

It is capable of "massive floating point processing, optimized for compute-intensive workloads and broadband rich media applications, including computer entertainment, movies and other forms of digital content," according to an earlier statement from the companies.

Sony and IBM have called Cell a strong technology for high-powered workstations and supercomputers, with multiple Cell chips able to work as a cluster.

"The supercomputer-like processing and performance of the Cell processor-based workstation is just the beginning of what we expect will be a wide range of powerful next-generation solutions resulting from our joint development efforts," Colin Parris, an IBM vice president, said in a November statement.

If history is any lesson, Cell is by no means guaranteed to encroach on the most successful microprocessor technology to date, the so-called x86 architecture that is the mainstay of the PC world and the profit center for both Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (Research)

Intel itself once aimed at pushing the x86 technology to the margins with a chip called Itanium it developed at great cost with Hewlett-Packard Co. (Research)

After a cool market reception, the Itanium project drifted away from those grand expectations. Today, Itanium remains a niche product marketed primarily at the relatively limited segment of supercomputers and high-end servers.

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