Intel chipsets add support for HDMI, TPM and NAND Flash-based BIOS in 2006

Chicago (IL) - When Intel launches its next-generation microprocessor architecture, the company will also introduce a new chipset platform as part of what the company calls a "refresh" to take advantage of new features. Users will see several features that enable and restrict the use of High Definition content, legacy removal and an effort to relocate the BIOS into NAND Flash memory, TG Daily has learned.

2006 will be an important year for Intel to set strategies and build the foundation for all microprocessor-related products in the next four to five years. The company already announced that it will launch a new architecture by mid of next year and we recently were able to provide our readers with a longer-term outlook what is cooking in Intel's labs. But processors are only half the story, as they require chipsets to enable platform functions.

While our view on the Northbridge plans is somewhat cloudy, we recently got some insight in Intel's ideas for the Southbridge. The next-generation chipset platform, referred to as "Broadwater" will include the "ICH8" Southbridge as successor of the current "ICH7," which is part of Intel's 945, 955, 975 chipsets. ICH8, due in Q2 of 2006, will be built in a 90 nm process and bring a substantial amount of new features that, in part, are required to take advantage of High Definition content and in other parts to add components needed for Windows Vista and most likely also for Apple's transition to an Intel platform.

Most surprisingly, however, Intel apparently rethought the way how BIOS is implemented into the motherboard and how the system accesses it. While the BIOS today is stored in ROM or NOR Flash chips, the ICH8 will be able to connect to a BIOS stored in NAND Flash: In addition to simply holding the BIOS, the memory will be programmable and even be capable of holding applications and control more features of the motherboard. Think of it as much more functional core software that not only initializes hardware components, but takes over more system features. In this light, Intel's decision to create a NAND Flash joint venture with Micron begins to make sense - as Intel said that it intends to use the NAND Flash not only to supply Apple, but also for its own devices.

ICH8 will also remove support for some aging technologies such as PATA in favor of SATA. While the current ICH7 integrates 4 SATA ports, ICH8 will come with 6 on the desktop platform. PATA support will be completely removed from the desktop chipset version and only be available in the mobile ICH8. Intel also increases the number of USB connects from 8 to 10 and integrates an additional EHCI controller to improve USB bandwidth on the desktop version. AC'97, which was touted in ICH7 as enabler for 7.1 channel audio will be gone in ICH8. Instead, the new Southbridge will bring real-time HD audio processing with support for the High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) via an additional SDI link.

But High Definition does not only bring new features, but restrictions as well. ICH8 will be the first Intel Southbridge to support the firm's La Grande technology (LT), a hardware-based security and digital rights management approach that is based on the specifications developed by the Trusted Computing Group (TCG). A key part of the technology will be integrated into a "Trusted Platform Module" (TPM) that will be located on the motherboard.

This TPM is believed to be essential for Apple, as it is expected to restrict the installation of Windows software on Apple devices. For Windows users, the TPM is tied to Microsoft's Windows Vista on an operating system level: Vista will include Microsoft's "NGSCB" (Next Generation Secure Computing Base), which promises to provide an added level of protection, for example from phishing attacks, but also has all the capabilities to provide an extensive digital rights (DRM) system. It is powerful enough to let content providers determine how we will be able to use digital content such as audio, video and software.

For the second quarter of 2007, Intel plans to release ICH9 to support the desktop processors Conroe, Ridgefield, Allendale and Millville (see our article on Intel's next-gen processors) as well as upcoming versions of the Xeon DP and MP. ICH9 will also serve as initial platform for Intel's first 45 nm processor generation, which will be based on the mobile "Penryn" CPU that is scheduled to be launched in the second quarter of 2008. As of now, ICH9 appears to be a slight update for ICH8 that, however, will continue legacy removal with PATA also disappearing from the mobile version, added USB support (12 ports) and a reduced power consumption of less than 3.5W.