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Intel sets its sights on imaging market

The chipmaker debuts a family of chips that handle various imaging tasks, in an attempt to carve out a bigger share of the market.

Intel envisions itself gaining a stronger foothold on the imaging market by introducing a new family of chips aimed at products such as copiers and scanners.

The chipmaker on Wednesday introduced its MXP processor family, which includes two chips that can handle a number of imaging tasks, in an attempt to carve out a larger share of the multibillion-dollar market for chips used in imaging products.

Many printer or copier manufacturers use Intel processors such as the Pentium inside their printers and copiers. But most imaging devices also require at least one secondary chip--usually an ASIC (application specific integrated circuit)--to manipulate images. ASIC chips, which are custom-made for each device, typically offer the best performance but are relatively expensive and time-consuming to develop.

Intel hopes the MXP chips will serve as a powerful but less costly alternative to ASIC. The company will offer the imaging chips, alongside others it sells for replacing ASICs, in networking gear.

Intel said using its chips can help companies bring products to market more quickly and at a lesser cost, allowing them to make more money or charge less for a given device. A single Intel MXP chip could serve as the backbone of an imaging device, resizing a page that is about to be printed or filtering an image that is being scanned, the company said.

Companies can continue using ASICs for their most expensive digital imaging products, but customers can link two or more MXP chips to tackle high-end printing or copying jobs, said Patrick Johnson, general manger of Intel's Advanced Media Processor Operation.

The Advanced Media Processor Operation is part of Intel's Communications Group. Engineers from the group worked with those from Xerox to forge the new chip and develop software to go with it, Johnson said.

"We wanted to develop some great technology to be able to serve (the imaging) market," he said. "Essentially, it was a ground-up effort. We walked in with some ideas and we said, 'Here's what we think,' and (Xerox) said, 'Here's what we think.'"

Like competitors such as IBM, which recently launched a custom chip design service that turns out semi-custom processors to replace ASICs, Intel believes lower costs and faster time to market will win over customers. Intel will aim for mid- to high-priced printers, copiers, scanners and multifunction devices, at first, but personal video recorders and similar devices could be a possibility as well, Johnson said.

The midrange to upper-end of the printing and imaging market amounts to about 130 million units per year and consumes about $5 billion worth of semiconductors, Johnson said.

Intel initially will offer two imaging processors. Its MXP5400 will include four processing engines, while its MXP5800 will have eight engines. Each engine, which consists of five individual processors, can handle a different task.

Intel plans to ship the MXP chips in large quantities by the end of this year. The MXP5400 will cost $51, while the MXP5800 will cost $68. The prices are for chips purchased in lots of 10,000.

Intel said several manufacturers are evaluating the new chips. At least one, Xerox, plans to use the chips in products next year.