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XScale allowing Intel to StrongARM into Palm handhelds

The chip giant's revamped StrongARM architecture should offer a significant boost to future generations of Palm devices, analysts say.

Intel's revamped StrongARM architecture, introduced today as XScale, should offer a significant boost to future generations of Palm devices and other handheld computers, analysts say.

Sources say Palm plans to use the low-power Intel architecture in a forthcoming version of its handheld. Palm chief executive Carl Yankowski said in April that Palm planned to use chips based on designs from England's ARM Inc., though he did not explicitly mention Intel's offering.

Gartner analyst Thomas Starnes says it's hard to predict whether Palm will design new versions of its handheld devices using Intel's new XScale chip architecture. But XScale, he says, would be a good choice for a personal digital assistant.

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Analysts agree that Intel's flavor of the ARM design is the only chip powerful enough to offer Palm a meaningful improvement on the Motorola Dragonball chips it uses today.

Intel representatives would not confirm the design win, and Palm representatives would not elaborate on Yankowski's earlier comments.

Both XScale and its StrongARM predecessors make use of the ARM instruction set, but Intel has redesigned the processor to offer far more power than standard ARM designs.

"You need something with this kind of horsepower," said Linley Gwennap, principal at consulting firm The Linley Group.

The XScale architecture offers performance roughly 20 times the Dragonball and uses less power, said MicroDesign resources analyst Peter Glaskowsky. The chip architecture also is able to shift performance on the fly, throttling up for multimedia programs and conserving power when running a calendar or memo pad.

The result is a handheld capable of running video but still able to run on off-the-shelf batteries, analysts said.

While Hitachi and IBM also offer good low-power chips, Glaskowsky said the ability of the XScale to handle such a range of voltages is impressive.

Glaskowsky pointed out there is a fair amount of other hardware and software needed to create devices that take advantage of the XScale's abilities.

While an Intel spokesman would not confirm the Palm design win, executives said the XScale is being designed into a number of next-generation handhelds.

Intel is also targeting so-called third-generation wireless handsets that will process video and data streams along with voice phone calls. If Intel is successful, within a few years the company could be selling more XScale-based chips than it does PC chips using the x86 architecture, Gwennap said.

Today, Intel sells about 100 million PC processors, Gwennap said.

Intel got the StrongARM technology when it purchased Digital Equipment's semiconductor unit in 1997. Many of the original chip designers fled after the acquisition, leaving Intel to rebuild the program.