Marvell targets smartphones with efficient XScale chip

Marvell plans to bring a more efficient version of the XScale chip to the cell phone market in December.

Marvell Technology Group plans to launch a new version of its "Monahans" processor by December to compete better against Texas Instruments and Freescale Semiconductor in the market for chips in 3G (third-generation) cell phones and smartphones.

This will mark the company's first release since acquiring the XScale line of cellular and applications processors from Intel for US$600 million. Intel had lost money on the product line, but Marvell plans to make it profitable by doubling its power efficiency.

The new chip will offer extended battery life and improved performance for wireless and embedded applications such as feature handsets, smartphones, handhelds and consumer devices, Marvell Chief Executive Officer Sehat Sutardja said on Nov. 8, when he announced the XScale deal had closed.

Marvell has not yet released details about the improved design, but the company could save energy by shrinking the chip geometry from 90 nanometers to 65 nanometers, allowing it to integrate extra technologies such as Wi-Fi and WiMax onto the chip.

After the changes, the chip division will have a much higher profile at Marvell than it ever did at Intel, where the company never devoted enough funds to compete against Texas Instruments and Samsung Semiconductor, said Todd Kort, principal analyst at Gartner.

Marvell could boost profits by targeting a larger market. Intel had used the chip to reach a strong portion of the 17 million PDAs (personal digital assistants) sold every year, as well as the 80 million-unit annual smartphone market, handling voice data for Research in Motion's BlackBerry and basic processing in Palm's Treo and Motorola Inc.'s Q smartphones.

By increasing power efficiency, Marvell could sell far more chips by reaching the enormous cell phone market, which includes 1 billion units sold every year, Kort said.

"Intel was always pushing performance rather than long battery life, but the trend has been to build smaller and smaller phones that can be used all day. The Intel products weren't quite cutting it; they had great processing but they couldn't last all day," said Kort.

One challenge Marvell might face is reluctance by phone vendors and wireless carriers to give up their share of revenue from hardware sales.

"There's a political overtone, because they're conscious of what's happened in the PC industry, where Intel and Microsoft have taken over most of the profits. TI has been a dominant vendor of chips for smartphones and they know how to work with the vendors, so that's still an advantage that TI is going to have," Kort said.

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