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Intel, MIPS heat up embedded chip market

Intel unveils plans for a 600-MHz processor for handhelds and other devices while MIPS details developments for competing processors.

Intel, again showing it is taking the market for non-PC devices seriously, is cranking up 600-MHz processors for handheld computers and other devices.

At the same time, SGI spinoff MIPS Technologies today detailed development plans for its competing processor technologies.

Intel announced plans today for a StrongARM line of chips that would enable handheld computers, Internet access devices such as TV set-top boxes, and other devices to process data at up to 600 MHz while consuming very little power: less than half a watt. The upcoming StrongARMs, which are expected to ship in limited quantities by 2000, can also be incorporated in networking equipment.

Intel made the announcement at the Embedded Processor Forum in San Jose, California, hosted by MicroDesign Resources. During the next four days, industry executives will gather at the forum to discuss the design of next-generation chips that, for the most part, go unnoticed in everyday devices such as game consoles and cell phones.

Intel's announcement is a sign that the company is paying closer attention to the development of markets outside of the PC market. While the company's fastest mobile Pentium II processors run at 366 MHz, they consume, on average, between 6.6 and 9.5 watts of power, and generate a significant amount of heat. Handheld devices, generally speaking, require chips that are less energy-hungry, because there is less space available for batteries.

The combination of high clock-speeds and low-power consumption could help give Intel some momentum in a market currently dominated by the likes of MIPS, Hitachi Semiconductor, and Motorola.

Although the company acquired the StrongARM design from the former Digital Equipment in 1997, Intel had been relatively quiet about its plans for the chip until the spring of 1998, when it said it would continue to develop the chip family. Now, the chip looks to play an increasingly strategic role in the market for cell phones, handheld companions, and other specialized information appliances that could see shipments of 25 million units and a market value of $13 billion by 2002, according to International Data Corporation.

MIPS maps plans

MIPS, meanwhile, laid out plans today for helping licensees of its chip designs such as Broadcom and Sony to move from 32-bit designs to 64-bit designs. The company announced new instructions for its products, which programmers use to control a chip's functions, while maintaining backwards compatibility with previous designs. Also, programs written for the "MIPS32" 32-bit chip will run on the "MIPS64" 64-bit chips, the company said.

MIPS said that the advantage of the new designs is that developers can target different market segments for a device without having to develop software and support it across multiple processor designs.

Texas Instruments will be among the first to say it will build products based on the new designs. In February, TI said it would combine MIPs processors with TI's digital signal processor technology for home networking products and digital consumer devices, such as handheld computers.