Intel gives integrated graphics another chance

Timna, developed in 1995, was Intel's first try at a processor with integrated graphics, but it never reached the market

Intel is getting ready to release two processors, an Atom chip called Pineview and a new desktop processor called Clarkdale, that include integrated graphics, a capability that spells the beginning of the end for third-party chipsets with integrated graphics.

While Pineview and Clarkdale will hit the market over the next six months or so, these aren't the first Intel processors to offer integrated graphics. The first chip was a processor called Timna, a radical design from the late 1990s that was to be the first of a chip family designed for low-cost computers

"It was a brilliant microprocessor," said Mooly Eden, the vice president and general manager of Intel's mobility group who led the engineering team that began work on Timna in 1995.

Besides integrated graphics, Timna also integrated other components with the processor, including the memory controller.

The addition of a memory controller ultimately proved to be Timna's downfall as Intel chose to back the wrong memory technology at a time when the computer memory market was in flux, with chip makers embroiled in a standards war.

Some chipset makers, such as Taiwan's Via Technologies, were betting on SDRAM (Synchronous DRAM) to be the industry standard, while Intel and others backed a different type of memory developed by Rambus, called RDRAM (Rambus DRAM). RDRAM chips were faster than SDRAM, but they were also much more expensive and produced more heat.

Eden and his team bet Intel would be able to help drive down the price of RDRAM, and chose to use RDRAM with Timna.

"Because we took the risk to integrate the memory controller, you had to bet on the memory technology," Eden said.

That bet on RDRAM failed to pay off as the expected fall in chip prices never materialized, and it was too expensive to rework the memory controller to support SDRAM. Intel killed Timna before the chips ever reached the market.

"It was a brilliant engineering solution but the memory was too expensive," he said, calling Timna "ahead of its time."

Today, DDR (double data rate) DRAM, a descendant of SDRAM, remains the industry standard.

While the high cost of RDRAM chips spelled the end of Timna, Eden and his team of engineers moved on to their next project -- a family of chips that reshaped Intel's mobile line.

"The Timna team is the same team that took all the methodology and everything and later designed the Banias, which you now know as Centrino," Eden said.

Banias was the first Pentium M processor and a technical forerunner of Intel's current processor architectures.

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