Tokyo (Japan) – Toshiba has been somewhat quiet about its involvement in the development and marketing of the Cell processor, the heart of the Playstation 3. Now we know what Toshiba is up to: The company will introduce a stream processor that will go head to head with AMD and Intel in various consumer market segments.
Intel firmly occupied the stage of hardware in the past few days and it was easy to get lost in the flood of news, marketing bubbles and implications of Intel's updated product strategy. In fact, there was particularly one announcement that may not have received the coverage it deserved: Toshiba's announcement of the "Spurs Engine".
The company said that it will be demonstrating the chip at the upcoming CEATEC Japan 2007 show in two weeks. There aren't many details about this chip available, but we know that it will be a stream processor based on the design of the Cell processor. So far, Cell has made its way into the Playstation 3, which has remained its only mass-market application to date; the integration in servers, for example by IBM, or in workstations, for example by Mercury Systems, is behind the expectations created by the marketing campaign when Cell was announced by Sony, IBM and Toshiba in 2005.
Other than IBM, Toshiba is aiming Cell at the consumer market. "The Spurs Engine is expressly designed to bring the powerful capabilities of the Cell/B.E. technology to consumer electronics, and to take video processing in digital consumer products to new levels of realism and image quality," Toshiba said. For example, the company wants to demonstrate at CEATEC the "real-time transformations of hair styles and makeup that instantaneously recognize and process changes in position, angle, and facial expression, and render them as computer graphics." The company also said that it will have a notebook with a Cell processor on display at the tradeshow.
There are not many details about the Spurs Engine available at this time. From the initial spec sheet, however, the chip appears to be a trimmed-down version of original Cell processor. It integrates one Power processor (PPE) as main processing unit, but just four synergistic processing elements (as compared to well as eight of the Cell chip used in the PS3). Toshiba's prototype is clocked at only 1.5 GHz, which compares to the 3.2 GHz of the Cell that is used in the PS3. Toshiba claims that its version of Cell consumes between 10 to 20 watts.
It is unclear at this time when the Spurs Engine will actually be available. The manufacturer mentioned that it will bring the chip to market "after CEATEC, for application in various digital consumer products, and for use by customers and Toshiba itself, as soon as it completes specifications for commercial production."
The Spurs Engine is likely to feel right at home in the consumer electronics market, due to Toshiba's experience in this segment and the experience Sony has collected with a mass-produced Cell chip over the past year. However, the processor may also face stiff competition from two other industry heavyweights – AMD and Intel. Both companies are quickly expanding their x86 chips into the consumer electronics market and at least AMD already has extensive history here, thanks to more than 100 million ATI chips that reportedly have been integrated in products such as TVs over the past few years.
Both AMD and Intel have mentioned repeatedly that they feel that x86 is ready for integration in consumer electronics and may in fact become more attractive as consumers demand a higher grade of interactivity from their devices: The fact that there are more x86 developers than Cell developers could imply that there applications for x86-based consumer electronics may surface faster and in greater variety than for Cell-based consumer electronics.