Intel unveils new chip design for handhelds, cell phones

The company announces the successor to its StrongArm chip. Dubbed XScale, the design will power future generations of handheld computers, mobile phones and the backbone of the wireless network.

4 min read
SAN JOSE, Calif.--Intel today announced the successor to its StrongArm chip architecture. Dubbed XScale, the design will power future generations of handheld computers, mobile phones and the backbone of the wireless network.

Although Intel demonstrated a prototype XScale-based chip running at 1 GHz, the company did not unveil specific chips, saying those announcements will come later in the year. At 1 GHz, an XScale chip would consume 1.5 watts of power. The processor also could be run in the tens of milliwatts, albeit with a hit in performance.

Ron Smith, the Intel vice president who heads the chip giant's wireless efforts, said the new design will enable entirely new types of wireless devices that can be powered by a single AA battery.

"It's really going to open up a whole new range of applications on a handheld," Smith said in a briefing with reporters at the Intel Developer Forum in San Jose. Intel executives said the company already has more than a dozen agreements to put the chip in next-generation wireless phones, handheld computers and devices that are something in between the two.

Although the microprocessor has taken a backseat to the digital signal processor in today's wireless phones, Smith said the computing muscle of the XScale will be needed to handle tasks such as voice recognition.

"That's clearly an area where you need headroom in the processor," Smith said. Today's StrongArm chips have found a home in some handheld devices, such as Compaq Computer's iPaq.

In addition to creating higher performance levels, Intel has made several improvements to the design of the processor core with XScale. A dynamic voltage management technique, similar to the SpeedStep function on mobile Pentium III processors, allows chips using XScale architecture to adjust their power consumption based on the task being performed.

For example, a handheld could ratchet up performance while playing a video clip and then conserve power when handling more basic tasks such as running a calendar program.

The chip will also have instructions geared toward media processing, much like the SIMD instructions that were added to the Pentium III architecture.

Smith said XScale's biggest competitor will be Intel's existing StrongArm processors, which the company plans to continue to sell. Smith said Intel also expects it could compete against other processor designs based on the Arm architecture, which Intel licenses for both the StrongArm and XScale architectures.

Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64, said XScale shows the strength of the StrongARM architecture that Intel inherited when it purchased Digital Equipment's semiconductor division.

He added that today's mobile phones don't require the performance XScale can deliver, but tomorrow's may well have a need for it.

"The notion we have today of cell phones as something that you hold up to your ear could easily give way to something that looks more like a PalmPilot. Then, of course, you do need the power."

Intel executives did not announce any products from a joint venture launched last year with Analog Devices to develop a digital signal processor (DSP).

The DSP, which handles much of the communications functions in a cell phone, is one of the few major parts of a cell phone that Intel does not offer. Smith said the project is on track and that Intel will have more to say later this year.

"It's being designed with wireless applications in mind and with the knowledge that such a thing as XScale exists," Smith said.

Smith would not detail Intel's plans for integrating components such as DSP, flash memory, XScale processor and baseband functions. But Smith and others have said in the past that integration is the key to Intel's ability to crack the wireless market.

"The more total building blocks a company has, the more they can integrate a total solution," Smith said at the company's analyst meeting in April. "Our objective is to deliver a fully integrated silicon solution...We're in a position to do a very high level of integration."

Already this year Intel has said it will spend up to $2 billion during the next few years to increase its production of flash memory and announced a deal with Mitsubishi Electric to work on chips for third-generation cell phones.

Intel executives said XScale is designed to shift some work from the DSP to the main processor but added that the chip is not designed to replace the DSP.

"You can do a smarter load balancing between the DSP" and the processor with XScale, said Hans Geyer, a vice president who heads Intel's cellular communications division.

Although the current generation of StrongArm chips is made at a former Digital Equipment plant in Massachussets, the XScale chips will be made with standard Intel manufacturing processes.