Intel offers new chip design for handhelds

Intel has unveiled a new chip design that will be used to build low-power, high-performance processors for smart phones and handheld computers.

          Intel unveiled a new chip design on 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) here.

          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 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 even 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, Motorola and others, which make processors for phones, PDAs and networking equipment.

          The first processors based on XScale are likely to be introduced by 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% of the PDA market -- it would be like capturing the crown jewels," Gwennap said.

          Intel hopes XScale will allow it to capitalise on an expected explosion in the number of devices used to gain wireless access to the Internet, particularly as new, third-generation (3G) wireless networks come into use in Japan, Europe and eventually the US. 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 the 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 microarchitectire announcement, not a product announcement," 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.

          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 lose the term "arm" from the name and to 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, Gwennap noted.

          The IDF ends on Thursday.

          Intel, based in Santa Clara, California, can be reached via the Internet at http://www.intel.com/.

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