Like the GPU, WiFi Now Moves Into The Intel CPU

Once upon a time a CPU in a notebook was just the central processing unit and all other functionality like memory controler, graphics, high speed buses, Ethernet controller, Wifi, etc. could be found in external chips. Many of those chips were produced and owned by companies other than Intel or AMD. Over time, as more and more functionality could be put into a single chip, many of the afore mentioned functionalities moved into the x86 CPU and the surrounding Intel chipset. In 2010 Intel took a major step and included the graphics processor, the GPU, in their chipset. This pretty much killed the mass market for stand-alone GPUs and since then, Nvidia (GeForce) an AMD (Radeon) GPUs are mostly used in gaming and special application PCs, i.e. in niche markets. Now it looks like Intel has taken the next step and the 2017 evolution of the Core-i processors will now also include the digital part of the Wifi controller.

While the digital part of the Wifi chip moves into the “CPU” chip, the analog part remains external and is also sold by Intel. According to the article behind the link above and Intel’s data sheet, a new interface referred to CNVio is used to connect the analog companion module to the CPU instead of PCI express. Little is published about this new interface so I’m not sure what kind of signals (analog, I/Q data, or digital) are transmitted over it. If digital signals are transmitted it would be interesting what the advantages of CNVio are over PCI express.

So far, notebooks came with Wi-Fi cards of different manufactures. Like for the GPU market some 7 years ago, including a major part of the Wifi chip in the CPU chipset will significantly change the 3rd party Wifi chip market as well.

From a Linux point of view this has both good and bad sides. On the one hand, Intel based Wifi has received good support from Intel over the years. Drivers become available quite quickly when new products are released while I had and continue to have mixed experiences with Wifi drivers for modules of other companies. So more notebooks with Intel Wifi means less trouble in the Linux world. On the other hand, less competition will over time slow down innovation and perhaps also reduce Intel’s motivation for providing and improving Linux drivers. Fortunately, this is not the case so far for GPUs after 7 years of Intel integrated-GPUs so I’m hopeful it won’t turn for the worse here either.