We recently brought you a story about Toshiba buying out Sony's interest in the Cell technology, including the production facilities. What we didn't have at the time was why. Now we do: Toshiba is planning to use the Cell technology to produce graphics cards.
At first glance this concept might seem a little strange as we're used to large, single chip graphics cards with enough transistors to rival or even eclipse modern CPUs. So why go with smaller, less complex CPUs but more of them? The answer lies in the fact that graphics is a computational task that readily lends itself to parallel processing.
Toshiba is tenetively calling this new technology “SpursEngine” and it seems like they might be able to enter the graphics card market and drive the competition to new levels:
“The SpursEngine will only include four SPE cores, rather than the full eight cores of the Cell/B.E. chip. New to Toshiba’s own chip will be dedicated hardware for decoding and encoding MPEG-2 and H.264 video.
“By combining the high level, real time processing software of the SPEs with the hardware video codecs, the SpursEngine realizes an optimized balance of processing flexibility and low power consumption,” Toshiba wrote in its press release.
The prototype of SpursEngine operates at a clock frequency of 1.5GHz and consumes power at 10 to 20 watts. In contrast, the Cell/B.E. processor found inside every PlayStation 3 operates at 3.2GHz. Like the PlayStation 3, however, the SpursEngine will also make use of Rambus XDR DRAM as working memory.”
Before ATI was acquired by AMD, it was rumored that the upcoming R700 series might also take a multiple-chip approach where lower end cards had less processors than higher end cards. It is entirely possible that AMD will release a GPU/VPU design that is quite similar in principle to Toshiba's, or they have changed their plans for the R700. We'll just have to wait and see.