Intel dives into new chip line

After some ambivalence, Intel is moving to sell and develop inexpensive StrongARM chips for handhelds, cell phones, and the like.

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
After months of speculation, Intel is moving full speed toward selling and developing processors for consumer-oriented electronic devices based on the StrongARM chip, an architecture that's completely different from its long-established PC chip standard.

Even as it launches plans to more aggressively market the current line of StrongARM microprocessors, Intel is working on a succeeding generation of chips that will be twice as powerful, according to sources at the company.

The chipmaker's efforts to develop a StrongARM line, code-named SA2, strongly indicate it has big plans for new markets. Intel acquired the StrongARM chip design from Digital Equipment last year but has yet to move on it.

"We're actively engaged with customers in the design phase [of products]," said Mark Casey, marketing director for StrongARM chips at Intel.

The faster SA2 chips will likely be released, or at least announced, in 1999, with mass manufacturing kicking off in 2000. The chip giant already has two separate design teams working on new versions of StrongARM.

"The days of wishy-washiness are over," said Dean McCarron of Mercury Research. "They [Intel] are investing in multiple design teams and multiple designs."

Intel's StrongARM moves will likely change the competitive landscape for processors in the "embedded" market, which comprises the low-cost chips typically found in TV set-top computers, intelligent devices such as Windows CE-based handheld computers, cell phones, and other items. Hitachi has been the dominant player with its SH series of chips, while Silicon Graphics spin-off MIPS is a strong contender.

Intel's Casey said the company's StrongARM chip will be targeted at TV "set-top computers" that are not tied to the Windows-Intel PC architecture. On the other hand, "set-top PCs" would use a version of the Pentium II processor and come with the capability to use PC software, he added.

The StrongARM chips would be aimed at set-tops priced below $400, while Pentium II chips would go into PC-TV devices below the $1,000 mark, he said.

Until now, Intel's x86 processors--the basis of the Pentium and Pentium IIs chips found in up to 90 percent of all PCs--have been deemed too power-hungry and expensive for most consumer electronics markets.

"We have fully embraced the StrongARM road map and we are making investment to enhance our design and marketing capabilities," said Ron Smith, vice president and general manager of Intel's computing enhancement group.

Although praised by both hardware designers and analysts, StrongARM seemed to have disappeared from the scene after Digital gave the chip's design to Intel as part of a massive legal settlement last fall. Its relative silence on the subject of StrongARM was largely interpreted as a reluctance to promote a chip it didn't originate. An Intel representative said that the company could not speak because it was in a quiet period--a span of time when it is prohibited from making public statements.

StrongARM chips are based around a design by Digital, which in turn is based around a design from Advanced RISC Machines.

As time progressed, however, Intel apparently found itself with a choice between getting in the market now or waiting until later. Now won out.

"This is a segment where Intel has no offering. If Intel does not play in that space, they leave a massive amount of sales to someone else," commented Greg Blatnik, vice president at Zona Research, who confirmed Hitachi and MIPS are the field's principals. "The market is booming for these chips."

"This [StrongARM] was a well-respected product. They were handed something that was ultimately everything you dreamed about for an embedded processor," added McCarron. "The alternative was to fall victim to the 'Not Invented Here' syndrome. They made a business decision, which they are good at."

Intel's StrongARM effort began with the manufacture of two StrongARM chips, the SA 110 and the SA 1100, under the Digital name. Manufacturing takes place at the Hudson, Massachusetts, plant it acquired from Digital in its $700 million settlement, according to Jim Turley, an analyst with MicroDesign Resources.

The SA 110 and 1100 sell for between $27 and $40 and run as fast as 233 MHz. Most Pentium- and Pentium II-class chips are priced in the hundreds.

Samples of a third chip, the SA 1500, were due in the first half of this year, he pointed out. Intel has yet to make a formal announcement of support for the SA 1500, but the company has said it will support the existing road map.

The next big stage will come with the SA2 generation. Although the company has been vague on exact details, both Blatnik and McCarron said that the chip will double the performance of current StrongARM chips.

"It's a substantial alteration of the architecture to boost performance," said McCarron.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.