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DSPs See the Long Arm of Moore's Law

In some respects, Intel Corp.'s July 2 introduction of its Pentium 4 line of PC processors, which clocked in at 1.6 GHz and 1.8 GHz, wasn't really an earth-shattering surprise. It was simply a case of Moore's Law at work.

That law originated from Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who in 1965 observed that the complexity and processing power of silicon would double every year. Moore's Law has slowed just a tad since (chip density and capabilities tend to double every 18 months today), but the same principles are holding steady: silicon continues to get smaller, faster and cheaper.

Though each cycle of Moore's Law ushers in greater densities, faster speeds and lower power-consumption requirements, plenty of observers in the chip sector believe doubling those elements are merely a target and not necessarily a law that's chiseled in silicon, said Ray Simar, a Texas Instruments Inc. fellow and manager of advanced architecture development.

"There are some people who believe it's a self-fulfilling prophecy or a goal [chip-makers] set for themselves," he said.

While Intel's Pentium CPUs are general purpose processors that rely on speed, digital signal processors (DSP) — such as the one TI sells to cable-modem and DSL modem manufacturers — handle additional underlying tasks and applications, and are also subject to Moore's Law.

"Those tasks are intensive," Simar said. "What people used to be doing at the circuit board level five to 10 years ago is now done in a chip."

By building a so-called "system-on-a-chip," the silicon also gains power reduction benefits with each cycle of Moore's Law. "That's what we try to do in the DSP — take advantage of what's running on those chips," Simar said. "We push [speed] to get more performance, but we also want to put one more DSP on a piece of silicon. It's like putting two workers on the job and doubling the overall performance."

In addition to doing more with less, the cycle also lowers the cost structure for new consumer electronics products. For example, residential gateways, which share bandwidth and applications with other devices in the home, can go for a steep $900 per unit today. However, that price point is expected to drop considerably as cheaper, more advanced chips weave their way into the marketplace.

"Moore's Law made it possible for everyone to have a PC and put cell phones in pockets worldwide," said Dushyant Desai, vice president of marketing at Ishoni Networks, a chip-maker primarily focused on the digital-subscriber-line and Voice-over-DSL equipment sector.

"Our vision is to bring broadband to everyone," Desai said. "We are relying on Moore's Law to lower costs and add functionality to the silicon."