Computer geeks have known about the Cell for a couple years ago – but they haven’t known much. Just that Sony, IBM, and Toshiba were working on the brain of the next-generation PlayStation console. Now we know more:
Technical details of the Cell processor, a joint venture between Sony, IBM and Toshiba, were disclosed in San Francisco today.
But the example chip shown to journalists today is likely to be superseded by faster versions when it appears on the market later this year. The Cell has 234 million transistors, measures 221mm2 and, as detailed in the patent, has eight execution units, here dubbed “synergistic processors”. Cell refers to a piece of software that roams the local machine, a LAN or a WAN looking for execution resources.
When the unit appears – in enterprise kit from IBM, and in Sony’s PlayStation 3 console – it’s likely to clock 4.6Ghz and be built on a 65 nanometer process. Today’s samples used a 90 nanometer process. Cells will be manufactured at IBM’s 300mm fab in East Fishkill, NY and Sony’s Nagasaki plant.
IBM said the processor is “OS neutral,” but it will able to run multiple operating systems concurrently.
When Intel introduced the Pentium 4 three-plus years ago, they promised they could “quickly” ramp it up to 10ghz. In reality, they’ve had trouble getting it to run at 4ghz – and that’s with a single core.
Sony aims to sell millions of PlayStation 3 units, even if they have to do so at a loss. (Game console makers follow King Gillette’s dictum about “giving away razors and selling razor blades.” The big money in consoles comes from selling the games.) So what’s that mean? It means there’s a built-in multimillion-unit demand for Cell chips. The fact that the Cell has a built-in demand is important for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.
What’s really genius here is, this is the second time IBM has connived with third parties to put the screws to Intel. When Motorola tapped out Apple’s G4 architecture, IBM stepped in to develop the G5. “How can anyone make money on a boutique market like Apple?” some people wondered. After all, you need to sell lots of chips before you even start to make back the development and capital expenses. Well, IBM put the G5 in their own servers, thus getting an economy of scale they couldn’t get if they’d sold the G5 only to Apple.
Now Sony is doing the same thing with the Cell. It will power the Playstation 3, which Sony will sell at a loss – while amortizing IBM’s (and Sony’s and Toshiba’s) expenses. IBM will sell the Cell in their servers or whatever. Toshiba will put the Cell in its “converged” HDTV sets. Heck, an “OS neutral” CPU could even be Apple’s step up from the G5 in a year or two.
All of which should make the Cell price competitive with Intel in very short order. And not just price competitive, either. If the specs are right, the Cell blows the Pentium 4 and even Intel’s Xenon processor right out of the water.
Did IBM get out of the Intel-dominated PC business just in time?
Does Intel have anything up its sleeve to compete with the Cell?
Is Apple about to become price- and performance-competitive in the sweet, profitable middle of the desktop market?