Intel to ship portable demo in handheld push

The chipmaker is preparing samples of its XScale processor, as well as prototypes of the type of handheld devices it can be used in, as competition heats up in the portable market.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
3 min read
Intel is preparing samples of its XScale processor, as well as prototypes of the type of handheld devices it can be used in, as competition heats up in the portable market.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker next quarter will send out prototype XScale systems--featuring flat-panel screens and keyboards--that will effectively make it easier for manufacturers to examine how Intel's chips might work in reality.

Whether the eventual products are called cell phones or PDAs (personal digital assistants) will likely be a matter of opinion.

"I think you'll see parallel development at the PDA and cellular handset manufacturers...and I also think you'll start to see devices that cross over" between the two kinds of devices, said Vishwas Deshmane, marketing manager for Intel's Personal Internet Client Architecture (PICA), which includes XScale.

While Intel traditionally provides this kind of prototype for new processor designs, a lot is riding on XScale. With the future of PC sales looking dull, the company wants to sell chips like XScale that power PDAs and pagers.

XScale acceptance also will drive sales of flash memory and other chips. Together, all of these products are tied up in the PICA blueprint for wireless devices announced last September.

Rival Texas Instruments is promoting a similar architecture, the Open Multimedia Applications Platform (OMAP). Whichever company gets the most adherents, analysts say, wins.

So far, Intel has carved out a fairly substantial foothold in the PDA market with the StrongARM processor, the predecessor to its XScale chip. Several manufacturers, including Compaq Computer and Hewlett-Packard, use StrongARM chips in their handheld devices.

Palm also is expected to join. The company will start to incorporate StrongARM chips into its handhelds next year with the release of version 5.0 of the company's operating systems. Sources have said the leading candidate is XScale.

XScale will offer higher clock speeds and lower power consumption than current StrongARMs, depending on the application. The chip can range from 50MHz, where it consumes about 10 milliwatts of power, to 800MHz, where it consumes about 1 watt.

PCA blueprints will also be tailored for the price spectrum. Some will provide plans for building a high-end product, while others will target the budget market.

More news will come out midyear, said Deshmane, while XScale-powered PDAs and pagers should appear around the holiday season.

While the chip can range up to 800MHz in its current form, manufacturers will likely use less clock speed to save on batteries.

"I would assume that in this year, people would actually dial it down," said Gene Matter, chief architect for Intel's Wireless Communications and Computing Group.

The "sweet spot" for this year's PDA offerings using XScale should be around 266MHz or 300MHz, he added.

Still, as with PCs, more speed could rapidly become a necessity.

"If you look at the current-generation Pocket PCs, it seems like (206MHz) should be enough, but it's not for some applications," said Kevin Burden, a senior analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

Intel faces a huge challenge. Handspring, Sony, Nokia and Ericsson all have already signed on to support TI's OMAP architecture. The two different architectures--OMAP and PICA--share a number of similarities. Both, for instance, revolve around an ARM processor. One of the biggest differences between the two is that OMAP recommends using TI processors, while Intel's showcases Intel technology.

Still, Intel landed a joint-development agreement with Mitsubishi for a new cellular phone chipset last May.

Other Asia-Pacific companies could be some of the first to start adopting the PICA architecture, sources at Intel have said. A number of Taiwan and Singapore-based contract manufacturers and others are increasing the amount of work they do in the cellular phone market.