Intel Unveils Chip Design for Handhelds

Intel unveiled a new chip design Wednesday that will be used to build low-power, high-performance processors for smart phones and handheld computers as well as infrastructure equipment for wireless networks.

Called the Intel XScale microarchitecture, the design is based on Intel's existing StrongARM chip but offers much lower levels of power consumption, a crucial consideration for wireless handheld devices, said Ron Smith, vice president and general manager of Intel's wireless computing and communications group, during a keynote at the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) in San Jose, California.

The design will be used as the basis for a new family of Intel processors that will be rolled out over the next several quarters, including chips for PDAs (personal digital assistants) and Internet-enabled cellular phones, as well as for networking storage products, routers and switches, Smith said.

Using processors based on the XScale architecture, manufacturers could offer handheld computers and mobile phones that combine personal management and calendar functions with wireless Internet access and even full-motion video, Smith said.

One analyst praised the product for being "extremely versatile," but noted that Intel will run into stiff competition from the likes of Hitachi Corp., Motorola Inc. and others, who make processors for phones, PDAs and telecommunications equipment.

The first processors based on XScale are likely to be introduced as early as the end of the year, said Linley Gwennap, principal analyst with consulting firm The Linley Group, in Mountain View, California.

Palm Inc. is rumored to be looking at XScale for use in future Palm devices, which currently use a microprocessor from Motorola, Gwennap said. "Palm holds 80 percent of the PDA market -- it would be like capturing the crown jewels," he said.

Products that use Intel's StrongARM today include Compaq Computer Corp.'s iPaq handheld.

Intel hopes XScale will allow it to capitalize on an expected explosion in the number of devices used to gain wireless access to the Internet, particularly as new, 3-G (third-generation) wireless networks come into use in Japan, Europe and eventually the U.S. Such networks will offer greater bandwidth and are better suited to data communications than today's telephone networks, and should lead to the development of new types of services and applications.

Intel demonstrated a prototype chip based on XScale at IDF here Wednesday. The processor was shown running at 200MHz, where it consumed just 0.05 watts of power, and at 800MHz, where it consumed less than one watt of power.

Intel said it will introduce products based on the new microarchitecture in the coming quarters, but wouldn't be specific.

"This is a microarchitecture announcement, not a product announcement," Intel's Smith said. "Stay tuned for the products."As previously reported, Intel is already developing two next-generation StrongARM chips for smart phones and handheld computers that operate at low-power levels, according to a source familiar with the company's plans. [See "Intel Readies Two New StrongARMs," Aug. 21.]XScale appears to represent a new brand name for the follow-on StrongARM chip that observers had expected to be called the StrongARM 2. Intel is apparently keen to drop the "ARM" moniker and brand the chip as one of its own, Gwennap said.

Intel licenses the ARM core from chip design company ARM Holdings Ltd. of the U.K. If XScale is based on ARM, Intel will continue to pay a royalty fee to ARM for each XScale product that it sells, the analyst noted.

The XScale microarchitecture builds on the ARM core by adding Intel's dynamic voltage management technology -- which is used to vary the amount of power consumed depending on the needs of the application -- and its media processing technology, which adds multimedia capabilities to the chip in a similar way in which Intel's Streaming SIMD instructions enhanced the Pentium III, Smith said.

XScale also borrows from the Pentium III's Superpipeline technology, which is what helps it to achieve higher clock rates. The architecture is capable of scaling to close to 1GHz, Smith said.

Intel says XScale will be supported by a host of operating systems, including Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE, VXWorks and IXWorks from Wind River Systems Inc., EPOC from Symbian Ltd., and embedded versions of Linux from various vendors.

At a press conference after his speech, Smith was asked about a newspaper report that Microsoft Corp., along with its WebTV subsidiary, has been quietly developing a sophisticated communications chip. The chip may be launched in the third quarter and is designed for a variety of Web appliances including set-top boxes, according to the report, which appeared in Wednesday's edition of the San Jose Mercury News.

"I think Intel's reputation as a chip company is a little more understood than Microsoft's," Smith quipped. Another Intel executive said the chip maker would welcome the competition.

Today's so-called "second-generation" networks typically support data throughput rates of only about 9.6K bps (bits per second), compared to 56K bps on most dial-up PC connections. 3G networks, due in Japan by 2001 and in Europe and the U.S. soon after that, support much faster bandwidths -- up to 115K bps.

Asia will be the fastest growing region, both as a manufacturer and a consumer of wireless devices, Smith said. India and China offer particular opportunities for growth, he added.

Higher-performance data networks will lead to the development of new devices that have larger screens and offer a variety of multimedia capabilities, such as the ability to play video clips, as well as more sophisticated networking devices, Smith said. Intel hopes to sell its XScale chips into each of those markets.

"We're basically going to use this core architecture in every piece of this, from the wireless Internet infrastructure to the wireless clients," he said.

Estimates from analyst firms suggest there will be 1 billion cellular subscribers in the world by 2003, possibly during 2002, Smith said. The new devices will lead to a surge in demand for flash, SRAM (synchronous random access memory) and other memory components, he said.

"The memory requirements as we add more data to these systems is going to go up phenomenally," Smith said. Intel is increasing its capacity to manufacture more flash, he added.

IDF ends on Thursday.

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