Start-Up Tweaks Power Demand of PowerPC Chip

There's a new player in the lucrative market of semiconductors that power everything from cars and game consoles to medical equipment and supercomputers.

P.A. Semi Inc. is set to emerge Monday after working the last two years in stealth mode, growing from a tiny team of big-name chip designers working out of a 600 square-foot office in Palo Alto to a company whose 150 employees occupy two floors in a high-rise in Santa Clara, the hometown of No. 1 chipmaker Intel Corp.

At the Fall Processor Forum (search) here this week, P.A. Semi will announce how it has designed a high-performance chip it claims will consume as much as 10 times less power than today's comparable products. But because it takes an average of four years to design and produce a new chip, P.A. Semi said its processors won't hit the market until 2007.

Microprocessors that run cooler and consume less energy generally translate to cheaper costs for equipment makers. It also means devices, such as notebook computers, could draw less battery power and remain cooler while in operation.

As computing chips have become faster and more powerful in recent years, companies such as Intel have worked to combat the accompanying problem of chips getting too hot or consuming more electricity than their vendors would like.

In fact, Apple Computer Inc.'s historic decision to soon switch its computers from PowerPC chips (search) to Intel's so-called x86 chips (search) stemmed from Apple's frustration that its PowerPC suppliers — IBM Corp. and Freescale Semiconductor Inc. — could not promise the same horsepower and power efficiency as Intel.

"Chip power is an enormous problem and has not been keeping up" with the fast rate of improvement in chip performance, said Dan Dobberpuhl (search), co-founder, president and chief executive of P.A. Semi. "We're addressing that."

In P.A. Semi's own tests, its chips deliver significant power savings because its components are more tightly integrated and smarter about turning off when not in use, Dobberpuhl said.

The startup's chips are based on the PowerPC chip architecture, which is a platform found in many networking and data storage machines as well as cars, some home electronics and upcoming video game consoles.

Given the acclaimed track record of Dobberpuhl and his co-founders in designing other groundbreaking chips, analyst Nathan Brookwood at Insight 64 predicts that P.A. Semi will deliver the performance they are promising.

Whether the company will succeed in winning customers remains to be seen.