Intel readies next handheld chips

The chipmaker is working on its latest handheld processor, code-named Bulverde, which will outrun its current XScale-based handheld chips while integrating flash memory.

Richard Shim Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Richard Shim
writes about gadgets big and small.
Richard Shim
3 min read
Intel is adding to its arsenal of processors for portable devices by developing an XScale-based processor, code-named Bulverde, for handheld computers.

Bulverde will largely be aimed at devices such as Hewlett-Packard's iPaq rather than at cell phones, according to sources. Cell phones are the target of Intel's recently announced PXA800F chip, code-named Manitoba. Like the PXA800F chip, Bulverde will be based around the XScale microprocessor architecture. However, the new chips will differ in megahertz and component integration from the current XScale PXA family of processors for handhelds, said sources.

Intel representatives declined to comment for this story.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company sells several processor products that make up the brains of portable devices. In addition to Manitoba, Intel currently makes XScale-based processors for portable devices and a combination XScale processor and flash memory package.

Intel's current XScale-based PXA processors for handhelds top out at around 400MHz. Bulverde will likely be significantly faster, said sources.

Typically, people use their handhelds for intensive applications such as playing digital audio or video files, playing video games and viewing digital photos. To better manage this, handheld processors need to run at faster speeds. These applications can also be performed on a cell phone, but the experience may not be as impressive.

In addition, cell phones require a digital signal processor (DSP)--a chip that fine-tunes the digital signals that eventually get heard as a human voice. Manitoba contains an integrated DSP. Handheld owners don't necessarily need DSPs. As a result, Bulverde will not contain a DSP or analog/radio functions, although these features may be added in succeeding years. The chip, though, will likely feature some integrated flash memory for improved chip performance.

Intel is pushing into the portable device market where rivals Texas Instruments and Motorola have held stronger positions. Motorola's Dragonball processors are used in most handheld devices using Palm's operating system, and TI is the leading chipmaker for cell phones.

To date, Intel has had far more success in the handheld business than the cell phone market. The company acquired the StrongARM line of mobile chips from Digital Equipment in a massive legal settlement in the fall of 1997. The chips were used in Apple's Newton handhelds and in many of the early handhelds that use Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system, among other devices.

In addition, XScale chips for handhelds, which came out in early 2002 to succeed StrongARM, are used in most products using Microsoft's Pocket PC OS and in at least one of Sony's Clie handhelds, which runs the Palm OS.

StrongARM, XScale, PXA800F and Bulverde all contain a microprocessor that is based around a chip architecture devised by ARM Holdings of Cambridge, England. Intel licenses the basic chip architecture from ARM, but devises its own chip designs.

In related news, Intel announced Tuesday that Korean phone makers Maxon Telecom and Mitac International have signed on to use XScale processors for portable devices in their next-generation handsets. Maxon is expected to be the first manufacturer to use the Manitoba processor in a phone. The handset, called the Maxon MX-E20, is expected to include a video player and built-in camera and is scheduled to be available later this year.

Mitac's phone, the Mio 8380, will use Intel's PXA262 processor, which comes with integrated flash memory. The Mio will come with a digital camera with zoom capability and will run Microsoft's Smartphone 2002 operating system. The phone is expected to be available later this quarter.

In separate news, TI announced Tuesday that Japanese cellular carrier NTT DoCoMo will use the chipmaker's OMAP processors in three new FOMA handsets.