Wonder Chip?

At last week's International Solid-State Circuits Conference, IBM, Toshiba, and Sony unveiled details of their new Cell processor chip—a device that The New York Times proclaimed would create "a new digital computing ecosystem that includes Hollywood, the living room and high-performance scientific and engineering markets."

IBM's Dac Pham said, "We believe a 10x performance over the PC, at the same power envelope, can be achieved. It will usher in a new era of media-centered computing." What's all the hubbub about, bub? A 90-nanometer 3.6GHz Pentium 4 occupies 112 square millimeters and contains 125 million transistors; a 90-nanometer Cell boasts 234 million transistors, while taking up 221 square millimeters. As recently as three years ago, that would have ranked the Cell among the 500 most powerful supercomputers in the world.

But the Cell isn't exactly a single chip: It's a modular design based more or less on the IBM processor that currently powers Apple's 64-bit G5 desktop computers. The Cell's architecture controls an array of eight additional processors, referred to by its designers as "synergistic processing elements" (SPEs), each of which is also a 128-bit processor.

IBM's Jim Kahle, director of technology at the Austin, TX Design Center for Cell Technology, told The New York Times that the Cell operated on a principle called "virtualization," which isolates applications from one another. Considered a mainstay of mainframe computing applications, this is the first time virtualization has been widely attempted in consumer electronics, and it promises to particularly enhance processing-intense applications such as simultaneous video decompression and decryption.

This lack of a centralized architecture means, as www.theregister.co.uk put it, that the Cell "has the potential to make computing global—where you rent computer cycles as a utility, and don't really care where they come from." Sound idyllic? Not so fast, The Register's Andrew Orlowski cautions. "The Cell is designed to make sure media, or third-party programs, stay exactly where the owner of the media or program thinks they should stay." Microprocessor designers generally attempt to make accessing memory as fast as possible, Orlowsky notes; the Cell's designers, however, "have erected several (four, we count) barriers to ensure memory accesses are as slow and cumbersome as possible—if need be."

Sony has announced that it will use the Cell in its PlayStation 3, which has its launch set for 2006, and Toshiba intends to employ the chip in its next generation of high-definition televisions. Both applications could make the Cell a major player in the home entertainment arena, but that may not be the big story here.

If Orlowsky is correct, that future world where computers all work together to give you what you want when you want it is, in fact, going to be a world where our computers only give us what we want when the media companies want us to have it. That's enough to make us wonder about what this wonder chip is really offering.