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Alchemy cooks up low-power chips for handhelds

The chipmaker has a new recipe for handheld devices: It includes a healthy dash of megahertz, but goes light on power consumption.

Alchemy Semiconductor has a new recipe for handheld devices: It includes a healthy dash of megahertz, but goes light on power consumption.

On Monday, the 80-employee chipmaker revealed the first product behind that recipe, its MIPS-based Au1000 processor.

The chip initially will offer clock speeds of up to 500MHz at 900 milliwatts. However, when running at 400MHz, the chip will consume just 500 milliwatts of power, said Phil Pompa, Alchemy's vice president of marketing. The chips will be priced around $40.

The chip's performance, power consumption and price will definitely grab the attention of device makers, according to one analyst.

"The only chips that are at the 300 to 400MHz mark are high-end chips from QED," said Linley Gwennap, principal at the Linley Group. "Those are $200 to $300 chips."

Austin, Texas-based Alchemy will sell its high clock-speed, low-power chip in a number of markets.

"Our strategy is to take this CPU core...and add different (peripherals) on the chip to serve different markets," he said. "If you add an LCD controller and memory, you have a PDA (personal digital assistant). If you add an Ethernet connection and DSL (digital subscriber line) chipset, you have got a remote connection device."

One of the first devices to use the new chip will be a Pocket PC-based handheld computer, which uses a version of Microsoft's Windows CE operating system. Alchemy is also aiming the chip at a virtual private-network access device and a corporate-oriented thin client, Pompa said.

One of the company's major targets is the corporate PDA, a beefed-up version of a handheld computer that packs Internet access with a full browser, along with the ability to view attachments and even video.

This device would require a lot more processing power than some of the current MIPS-based devices on the market, Pompa said.

Alchemy will run into a few heavyweights, namely Hitachi and NEC, in the MIPS market. Hitachi's SH4 and NEC's VR4100-series, both MIPS chips, are both well established among Pocket PC-based devices. Hewlett-Packard's Jornada 540 Pocket PC, for example, sports a 133MHz SH4 chip.

However, Gwennap said, Intel is the only chipmaker that may be able to match Alchemy on power and performance.

"Other than the (Intel) XScale chip, there's nothing else out there that offers this combination of price and performance," he said.

Alchemy, which is compatible with Windows CE, Linux and VXWorks operating systems, will send samples of the new Au1000 chip to customers in the second quarter of this year.

The 32-bit chip is based on the 32-bit MIPS32 processor architecture, licensed from MIPS Technologies.

It will begin shipping during the summer at speeds of 266MHz, 400MHz and 500MHz. The first products using Au1000 should debut in the fourth quarter. Pricing on the 400MHz chip, in quantities of 10,000, will be $39 each.