The Need For SoC
TH: We’ve had system-on-chip designs for many years, obviously. Why did it take Intel until now to come out with its own SoC?
TT: That’s kind of a complex question. Let’s talk about the notebook, which was my last platform before I worked on this one. The notebook platform has very little motivation to shrink in size, especially in desktop replacements. Several years ago, we were trying to get the desktop side to adopt a lot of the notebook’s capabilities. [Ed.: Presumably, this refers to the mobile-on-desktop effort back from the Core Duo days.]
But the desktop industry and users had very little motivation because of the developed component ecosystem for power delivery, heatsinks—the whole nine yards needed to build a desktop. And a similar thing has evolved around the notebook. The need for space and capabilities are very different between these platforms. When not driven by the constraints of size and capability, these platforms can use existing components and programable logic to do, for example, video decode and encode. There’s little motivation for them to move to an SoC-like environment.
But when you come to such things as handheld devices, set-top boxes, and embedded systems, all of these have size and power constraints. Constraint is the mother of necessity that drove us to designing SoCs. We needed a such-and-such size chip with certain capabilities and power—high performance CPU, memory controller, graphics controller, video controller, decoder/encoder. You have to wire all of those things up into that limited real estate. That’s what drove us into building an SoC for this class of devices—need more than anything else.
Also, I should add that this wasn’t a focus area for us 10 years ago. Phone was not an Intel priority segment until we decided to take on the battle. When we saw the phone becoming more of a handheld computer, then it became a focus segment and put us down this road.
TH: Are there limits to what makes sense to integrate onto an SoC?
TT: No. It really depends on the size. For a phone, your size is constrained by the silicon area and what will be allowed on the footprint of the phone device. If it’s a 12 x 12 mm chip, we’ll try and put as many things as possible in it.