National Semi to release PC-on-a-chip in 1999

National Semiconductor announced yesterday that it will release a single silicon chip that combines nearly all of the various chips that make a PC work. The release is set for the middle of 1999.

Commonly referred to as a "PC-on-a-chip", the idea is to combine silicon devices performing different functions, such as central processing, graphics, video and audio, into a single chip. The final product will integrate about a dozen functions on a piece of silicon about 13mm wide, National said in a statement. It will not include memory or high-voltage power-supply functions.

The announcement comes as no surprise. In February, news leaked to the press that National was planning to invest up to $US150 million in a PC-on-a-chip project. As expected, National's PC-on-a-chip will be created at the company's Herliza, Israel, design center, which has been responsible for designing peripheral chips that surround the processor on a typical PC motherboard, the company said.

National is aiming the unnamed chip at low-cost desktop and notebook PCs and information appliances such as set-top boxes and Web phones. Since less silicon will be needed, PC-on-a-chip systems will cost less than their multichip counterparts, allowing systems to be priced well below the $US1000 point now established for many entry-level PCs, according to observers.

The single-chip technology also takes less power to run, making the chips ideal for portable computers and information devices, National said.

US-based National plans to build its new chips on core PC-on-a-chip technology from Cyrix, which it acquired last May, the company said. Cyrix makes the MediaGX processor, which combines several functions onto one chip and is also aimed at low-cost PCs.

In addition, the company will draw on other recent acquisitions in developing the chip, including Mediamatics for MPEG video decompression, PicoPower for system logic and FIS for graphics, National said.

National said it is developing versions of the chip for several notebook and desktop PC manufacturers, but would not say which ones. In addition, it will aim to get the chip into as many information appliances as possible, National said. Aside from set-top boxes, National sees the chip being used to power in-car navigation systems and flat-panel information displays.

The PC-on-a-chip will use distributed processing so that different parts of the chip are optimized to perform specific tasks, such as multimedia or communications. This allocation of resources will improve the overall performance of the chip, the company said.

National will manufacture up to 30,000 of the chips per month at its new wafer fabrication plant in South Portland, Maine. Initially, the company will use 0.25-micron technology, but will move to 0.18-micron at a later date, National said. If needed, National will use capacity in the plants of partners including IBM Microelectronics to increase production.