Computers are getting smaller and functions that once required multiple chips will increasingly be combined or move to the processor. But Intel said one component is going to survive these changes: the chipset.
If a processor is the brain of a computer, the chipset is its central nervous system. Traditional PC designs use a dual-chip chipset with one chip acting as a memory controller and another handling I/O functions, but that is changing.
"The chipset is not going to go away," said Richard Malinoski, vice president and general manager of Intel's Chipset Group. At the same time, the chipset's functions have evolved over time. "I think the vision of the kitchen sink, one big chip that is the computer, is a little bit exaggerated."
"We're miles away from that kind of a model," he said.
Nevertheless, big changes are afoot. Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) was the first PC chipmaker to do away with the separate memory controller, moving this component onto the same piece of silicon as the processor to boost performance. Intel plans to follow suit with Nehalem, a new processor design the company has planned for 2008.
At around the same time, AMD and Intel are expected to take the graphics capabilities integrated in some chipsets, and move this to the processor -- at least for some systems. Different types of computers are going to use different components, reflecting the wider range of computers that are increasingly available.
For example, in the not-too-distant future many PCs, will have processors that include graphics capabilities. But separate graphics processors, called discrete chips, will still be needed, particularly for high-end systems and gaming machines where users demand better graphics performance.
"Different people want different things," Malinoski said, adding that many functions, such as parts of Intel's vPro technology, are handled by the chipset.
As the chipset's role evolves, one requirement that won't change is the need for I/O. Both high-end and mid-range PCs require a chipset to handle the flow of data between the processor and other components, such as solid-state drives or, in the case of systems using discrete graphics, the graphics card.
The integration of PC components will be greatest in ultramobile computers. Designers are racing to combine components in a bid to cut power consumption and shrink the size and weight of these devices. Asustek Computer's Eee PC and Via Technologies's NanoBook, both announced at Computex, illustrate the progress that's being made.
Via is blazing the trail towards still smaller devices, and Intel isn't far behind.
Earlier this week, Via CEO Wenchi Chen unveiled the company's Mobile ITX motherboard, which measures just 7.5 centimeters by 4.5 cm -- less than a business card. And he promised the company will introduce still smaller boards, made possible by CPUs that combine the processor with the chipset and graphics processor inside a single package.
"The single CPU chip will happen," Chen said this week.