China: The Next Intel?

China: The Next Intel?

By Tom R. HalfhilltomH.jpg
I was recently embroiled in controversy after writing a technical report about a new Chinese-designed microprocessor. The controversy was inflamed by dodgy Internet news sites, and it obscured the most important conclusion of my article: that China is capable of designing microprocessors as sophisticated as any in the world.

Of course, companies have been assembling PC clones in China for some time now, but they’ve never used Chinese-designed and -manufactured processors. Such a move would signal a whole new ball game—not just for the Chinese, but for the entire industry.

My 6,400-word analysis for Microprocessor Report found many similarities between the new Chinese Godson-2 processor and the MIPS R10000, introduced by MIPS Technologies in 1995. But because my data didn’t support a conclusion of patent infringement, I didn’t accuse China of stealing MIPS’ intellectual property. Unfortunately, some news outlets recklessly made this charge, even though their writers hadn’t read my article or gathered their own data.

What’s important is that the Godson-2 is a powerful design: a 64-bit processor with four-way superscalar pipelines, out-of-order execution, dynamic branch prediction, media extensions, and other goodies. Top speed is only 500MHz, but that’s mainly because it’s intended for low-cost applications, and the fabrication technology is two generations behind (0.18 micron). A faster 0.13-micron version is coming soon.

A Chinese processor similar to the 10-year-old MIPS R10000 might not seem earthshaking, but microarchitectures have evolved little since 1995. Indeed, AMD and Intel are stepping back from increasingly complex microarchitectures in favor of simpler, dual-processor cores integrated on one chip. Today’s Godson-2 design isn’t far behind a Pentium 4 or Athlon 64, and the Chinese want to integrate four cores in the future Godson-3.

The Godson-2 is mostly MIPS compatible, so it runs Linux and other operating systems, but not Windows. To crack the worldwide PC market, China needs an x86. Interestingly, a Chinese company recently licensed Transmeta’s x86-compatible Crusoe and Efficeon processors. That deal gives the Chinese a legal doorway into PCs, at least at the low end. While AMD and Intel squabble with each other, a formidable new competitor is rising in the east.

Tom Halfhill was formerly a senior editor for Byte magazine
and is now an analyst for Microprocessor Report.

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