AMD fine-tuning embedded chips unit

The chipmaker licenses an advanced architecture from MIPS to boost its new division. But analysts say the deal could put a wrench in AMD's plans down the road.

Matthew Broersma Special to CNET News
3 min read
Advanced Micro Devices has licensed an advanced architecture from MIPS Technologies to boost its new embedded chips division, which makes processors for devices such as handheld computers and information appliances.

The chipmaker announced at the Embedded Processor Forum in San Jose, Calif., on Monday that it would license the 64-bit MIPS64 instruction set architecture, which is suited to high-performance applications such as multimedia and encryption. Chips based on MIPS64 will ultimately be used in Internet-enabled devices, AMD said.

AMD's current embedded chips are based on the product line of Alchemy Semiconductor, which AMD acquired in February, and use the MIPS32 architecture.

"AMD strongly believes in the MIPS architecture and that the 64-bit MIPS architecture will complement our current 32-bit MIPS32 technology-based products and ultimately will serve new and different markets," Billy Edwards, general manager of AMD's Personal Connectivity Solutions (PCS) group, said in a statement.

Microsoft endorsed the architecture for its Windows CE .Net operating system, designed for embedded products such as Pocket PC PDAs and smart phones. However, current Pocket PC 2002 PDAs run only on chips based on designs from ARM Holdings, MIPS's U.K.-based rival, which is dominant in handheld computers and mobile phones.

Licensing the 64-bit architecture is a vote of confidence in MIPS. Nevertheless, some analysts say that reliance on MIPS designs, rather than those of ARM, will be a hindrance for AMD--particularly when it attempts to crack the mobile phone market in two years or so.

"It would not be surprising to see AMD emulate or incorporate an ARM instruction set into (mobile phone and handheld computing devices) at some point in the future," Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds had said when PCS was formed earlier this month.

MIPS technology has been used in chips for devices including the PlayStation 2, digital set-top boxes from Motorola and Hewlett-Packard laser printers.

Sixty-four-bit chips handle instructions in larger chunks, allowing them to achieve better performance than the 32-bit chips that are currently standard in PCs and many embedded devices. MIPS64 is capable of handling both 32-bit and 64-bit code.

Alchemy, formed by former employees of Digital Equipment, specializes in energy-efficient chips built around designs from MIPS, the chip spinoff of SGI. MIPS chips compete against processors built around designs from Hitachi as well as from ARM. These chips run at slower speeds than PC processors but consume far less energy.

Though the PCS group will initially concentrate on expanding Alchemy's Au line of processors, AMD also plans to move into the market for chips for 802.11 wireless networking systems and other components necessary for building consumer-electronics products. The group will work closely with AMD's flash-memory division, one of the company's two dominant businesses.

PCS builds on AMD's core memory and PC processor divisions, allowing AMD to move into new markets. By the same token, AMD needed to move into this market to protect its flash-memory contracts.

Intel, which sells processors and flash memory, is on a bundling rampage in this market, providing customers with memory, processors, circuit boards, networking chips and even blueprints for building devices.

ZDNet U.K.'s Matthew Broersma reported from London. CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.