Intel targets StrongARM chip at CE

It had been the poor stepchild in the Intel family, but some companies are now flocking to the low-cost, low-power processor.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
PALM SPRINGS, California--A funny thing is occurring at the Intel Developer Conference here. Mention the word "StrongARM"--the low-cost, low-power processor that Digital assigned to Intel late last year in a legal settlement--and no one runs away.

Indeed some companies are flocking to it. At least two computer makers will incorporate 200-MHz versions of an Intel StrongARM chip in handheld computers using the "Jupiter" version of Microsoft's Windows CE that will be announced later this year, said sources familiar with the upcoming announcements.

This is an important first for Intel. To date, its absence from the Windows CE device market has been conspicuous. Hitachi and MIPS have taken the lion's share of the Windows CE chip market.

But it won't be a cake walk. Much of the development momentum is centered on the Hitachi SH series of chips, according to Microsoft officials.

Jupiter Windows CE devices will take on many shapes and sizes but the theme for some will be dedicated email, according to Microsoft, as well as slightly larger designs.

Windows CE, however, is by no means the only market for StrongARM. "It's a very key ingredient in our (server architecture) designs," said John Miner, vice president of the enterprise server group at Intel. StrongARM chips from Intel are also due to appear in inexpensive set-top boxes later this year, said Intel CEO Craig Barrett.

At the Intel Developer Forum, the chipmaker is already hawking a circuit board that uses the StrongARM chip that TV makers can use to give their TVs Internet capability.

Another high-level Intel executive even ventured so far as to say that the StrongARM was one of the primary spoils in the settlement of the patent infringement suit between Digital and Intel last year. Acquiring Digital's chip fabrication plant in Hudson, Massachusetts, was nice, but it was secondary to StrongARM, he conjectured.

Seven months ago, though, at the last Intel Developer's Conference, it was the chip that chairman Andy Grove bluntly refused to talk about in a question-and-answer session with reporters. Most other company executives shied away from conversations about the chip as well.

Even in April, Intel's plan was to use its homegrown Celeron chip in all price ranges of set-top boxes.

Time, and a burgeoning market for efficient, low-cost chips, however, have a way of turning heads.

StrongARM is a high-powered, low-voltage chip originally designed by Digital that is based on chip architecture originally created by Advanced RISC Machines, a processor designing concern in the United Kingdom.

Unlike Intel chips, which are based on Intel's CISC (complex instruction set computer) design, the StrongARM revolves around the RISC (reduced instruction set computer) architecture that is used in chips like IBM?sPowerPC chip. Although not as commercially popular or as fast as current Pentium II processors, StrongARM chips have been well regarded for their ability to run fast without consuming power.

They also generally cost considerably less than Intel chips. StrongARM?s cost around $40, according to various sources. Intel Pentium processors start at around the $100 range.

As a result, the are considered a better fit for hand-held computers and Internet-savvy cable boxes, markets that Intel has yet to penetrate. StrongARM chips won't be used in mid- or high-end Intel-based set-top boxes, but they will appear when Celerons are too expensive. They also stand as good candidates to replace Intel's i960 chip, an embedded processor that has been selling for a number of years, as the company's key solution for communications devices or as ancillary, helper chips in servers.

Intel's StrongARM push will likely begin soon. There are two current designs. The SA 1100, which is out and currently runs at 200 MHz and can go up to 220 MHz, will be used in hand-held devices and likely as an embedded controller for ancillary server functions. Web phones are another potential use, said David Brash, group leader at ARM.

The SA 1500, which will come out shortly, differs in that it is coupled with a media processor for richer graphics. It will be used in set-top boxes. Among other uses, Intel is also showing off a motherboard that can be inserted into a standard TV that will turn a TV into an Internet appliance. The board includes a StrongARM, a modem, memory, and a telephone connector.

These designs will then be succeeded by the SA2, a new generation of StrongARM chips to be announced in 1999 with mass manufacturing to begin in 2000, Mark Casey, marketing director for StrongArm chips at Intel, said in an earlier interview. Barrett, Intel's CEO, promised new generations on a biannual basis.

The resurgence of StrongARM in many ways can be put down to shifting commercial circumstances. The chip was well-regarded when manufactured by Digital, but it found few commercial opportunities. Digital had its most visible design win with StrongARM when Apple chose to use it with its MessagePad. Loved by its fans, the MessagePad was not a commercial success. Apple discontinued its handheld efforts last year.

Intel acquired Digital's rights to the StrongARM design in a broad-ranging legal settlement last year. Part of Grove's reticence to discuss StrongARM at the last developer's conference stemmed from the fact that the Federal Trade Commission was still mulling over the terms of the settlement.

Even after the FTC approved the deal, however, Intel was still relatively mum about the new chip. Some analysts said part of the indecisiveness stemmed from the fact that, if adopted, StrongARM would be the first chip marketed by the company that didn't emerge from its own labs. Selling the chip also involves paying royalties to ARM.

Nonetheless, the device market is taking off.

"This is touted as the processor that will make CE a player in the marketplace," said Sean Liming, engineering manager, Annasoft Systems, a CE developer.