Embedded chip show reveals what lies beneath

An event billed as "the embedded processor industry's most important week of the year" might not make for a gripping vacation, but it should provide an early glimpse at the chips that will run tomorrow's handheld computers, cellular phones, automobiles and other electronic equipment.

The Embedded Processor Forum, which kicks off this week in San Jose, California, provides a forum where leading chip makers can describe their latest and greatest chip developments to fellow engineers. The event is expected to include announcements this year from leading players including MIPS Technologies Inc., PMC-Sierra Inc. and Texas Instruments Inc.

Broadly speaking, embedded systems refers to any electronics product that has computing capabilities which are hidden from the end user. The term encompasses anything from high-end equipment such as automobiles and airplanes to mass market goods such as cell phones, game consoles, microwave ovens and refrigerators.

"It's a long-standing tradition that people unveil new chips at the show," said Markus Levy, senior analyst at MicroDesign Resources, an analyst firm which hosts the conference. "If the chip has already been announced, they'll talk about some new aspect that they hadn't talked about before."

MIPS Technologies will unveil two new processor cores at the show, designed for use in cell phones and other wireless gadgets, networking equipment and storage applications, the company said. MIPS will also announce Monday which companies plan to use the new chips in their products.

MIPS has focussed more lately on the market for low-cost devices, putting it increasingly in competition with ARM Ltd., a U.K.-based chip design company, Levy said.

MIPS will also discuss plans related to Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Embedded Strategic Silicon Alliance (WESSA), a group of companies that have access to source code for Microsoft's Windows CE 3.0 operating system, which is used in small devices.

Microsoft hopes that by making available some of the source code for Windows CE, it will allow chip makers to fine-tune their chips to run better on its software. WESSA was announced in February at the Microsoft Developers Conference. Broadband communication semiconductor company PMC-Sierra will announce a new dual-core processor that may reach clock speeds of up to 1GHz, Levy said. "They have pretty good designers over there, and they usually deliver what they claim," Levy said.

PMC-Sierra will describe how the chip uses an integrated, high-speed bus which allows two cores to communicate with each other. The company has also integrated a HyperTransport controller to link the new processor to "the external world," Levy said.

HyperTransport, created by Advanced Micro Devices Inc., (AMD), aims to enhance the PCI (peripheral component interconnect) bus used in most PCs today. "This is the first embedded company I've heard of implementing this, it's pretty new technology," Levy said.

Texas Instruments (TI) will be showing a new digital signal processor (DSP) architecture for use in wireless base stations and other infrastructure equipment. It features an integrated co-processor that's designed to reduce the stress on its core processor, something that will be useful for intensive applications in second- and third-generation wireless technologies. "This is the first DSP to have a dedicated co-processor on a standard, off-the-shelf product," Levy said.

TI will reveal more details on the co-processor at next week's show. The most interesting thing about the chip, dubbed the TMS320-C6416 processor, is that it is aimed primarily at the wireless infrastructure side, while most chips of its kind are used in handsets and other client products, Levy said.

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