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Intel's third stab at consumer electronics

Chipmaker has produced prototype chips and formed a project to try to devise energy-efficient versions of its x86 processors.

More details have emerged of Intel's plan to bring chips based on the same designs as its PC chips to handhelds and consumer electronics.

The chipmaker has formed the Low Power Intel Architecture project, or LPIA, to try to devise energy-efficient versions of its x86 processors, software and components for handhelds, micro PCs and other devices. The company has also developed concept phones and portable video players containing prototype chips.

"This is one of many projects we have in trying to get better performance per watt," a representative of the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip giant said.

Last year, company executives said Intel was devising low-power derivatives of its x86 chips for consumer electronics, but few details were released. At that time, the company did not elaborate on the name of the group, the performance goals or whether prototypes existed.

More details on the LPIA will be revealed at the Intel Developer Forum next week, sources said.

Ideally, a handheld computer that has about 300 cubic centimeters in volume and that contains these chips will run for eight hours or more under average conditions, according to an Intel white paper on the subject. In addition, it will consume only 5 watts of power maximum, according to the paper. The research is being conducted by Intel's Systems Technology Labs.

"Over time, handheld and embedded devices will become true computer systems in miniature," wrote Intel researcher Ram Chary in a white paper on the LPIA project. "Handheld and similar devices will have enough computing power, memory and storage to do big jobs like speech and image recognition...Even small devices in the future will have large screens (relative to the device), audio, imaging capabilities and other sensing technology."

In the past several years, Intel has come up with a number of ways to reduce power consumption in its chips. The company also spearheads industry-wide efforts to reduce power consumption in components such as screens and to improve the technology behind batteries and other power sources.

Reducing the total system power to 5 watts maximum, however, will take some work. The ultralow-voltage Pentium M that Intel sells today has a thermal ceiling, or maximum energy output, of 5.5 watts, although its average power consumption is less than a watt. That figure doesn't include the power consumed by the screen or hard drive, which consume more energy than the processor. The standard Pentium M has a thermal ceiling of 27 watts.

Low power will also be crucial in limiting heat dissipation. Few consumers want a phone with a fan. Handhelds based on these chips therefore will have to run at comfortable levels. That would be somewhat close to 25 degrees Celsius, the typical ambient temperature of office buildings. Most people are uncomfortable holding a handheld that gets up to 50 degrees Celsius, according to the white paper. At 55 degrees Celsius, skin can burn.

Bringing out a line of x86 chips for this market would allow Intel to enter into two large, growing markets that have eluded it in the past, namely cell phones and consumer electronics. Intel has tried to place its processors in cell phones since 2000, but until recently has landed few deals. Rich Templeton, CEO of Texas Instruments, which remains the primary power in cell phone silicon, calls Intel's incursion "limited." Intel silicon is inside many PDAs, but that market is shrinking.

Consumer electronics is also an uphill battle. The company came out with its own brand of consumer electronics in 2000, only to snuff the line months later. In 2004, Intel announced plans to make chips for TVs as well as promote a device called the entertainment PC, or "EPC," for the living room. The company killed the TV project about 10 months into the year, citing poor manufacturing results. The entertainment PC is being remodeled, due to less than spectacular sales, Don MacDonald, who runs Intel's Digital Home Group, said earlier this year.

Intel mostly sells Xscale processors into the cell phone market. Xscale chips derive largely from a processor design licensed from England's ARM. Coming up with an x86 chip would let Intel dodge paying royalties.

Some of its Xscale chips for cell phones, such as Manitoba have not sold well either.

Intel has actually sold chips into the handheld market, but typically these chips tend to be versions of older chips that provide lower levels of performance. Research In Motion, for instance, has used 386 chips--the same type that Intel sold into the PC market in the early 1990s--in its BlackBerry handhelds.

Rival chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices is also making overtures to the portable market. It kicked off an effort in May to get its chips into consumer electronics devices.