New chips aimed at faster cell phones

This week Texas Instruments and Analog Devices are to announce new chips with advanced capabilities aimed at phones for higher data rate 2.5G and 3G cellular networks.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
3 min read
When it comes to cell phones, less is more.

This week Texas Instruments and Analog Devices will announce new chips with advanced capabilities aimed at phones for higher data rate 2.5G and 3G cellular networks.

Although the TI's OMAP (Open Multimedia Applications Protocol) chip and Analog's Othello One perform different functions, they share the same goal: to reduce the number of chips required to put together a cell phone, thereby reducing the cost.

Analog also will announce its first DSP (digital signal processor chip) developed with Intel.

The companies are each gunning for a lead position in what will likely become a looming worldwide cellular overhaul, according to analysts. During the next few years, consumers will replace their cell phone with units that can take advantage of faster 2.5G or 3G networks begin created now.

Cellular phones generally consist of three different subsystems: a radio frequency transmitter, a base band unit complete with a DSP for channeling signals and a processor for running the user interface. Othello One essentially condenses the chips required for a radio into one part, Analog executives said.

TI's OMAP chip comes from the opposite direction, combining the processor core and the baseband parts. The company will offer the chip to manufacturers of cellular phone handsets, PDAs (personal digital assistants) and Internet appliances. The OMAP chip will be capable of running applications that will range from wireless messaging to downloading video clips. TI currently markets an OMAP package, but two or more chips are required to put it together.

Regardless of what purpose they serve, new multimedia applications will require a lot more processing power than today's phones have.

"Everyone is convinced multimedia will happen" on a cellular phone, said Richard Aerselake, worldwide marketing manager for wireless computing at TI. "But I think the jury is still out on what applications users will actually want."

The company says that's where OMAP will excel. OMAP combines, in the same chip, an ARM9 processor core running at 175MHz, a TI C55x DSP core running at 200MHz with memory and a host of peripherals, ranging from an LCD controller to flash memory. Combining the different elements allows phone makers to save cost and power consumption, allowing for longer battery life for phones and PDAs.

OMAP also includes a software-development kit and support for major operating systems including EPOCH and Windows CE. Support for Palm OS will come in the future as Palm moves its OS to ARM processor cores.

Analog, will also announce this week its first DSP chip based on the Micro Signal Architecture, a new DSP core the company developed through a partnership with Intel.

"It will be the cornerstone of our 3G strategy," said Doug Grant, director of business development for Analog Devices. The company will outline its DSP road map this week at the 3GSM World Congress, he said.

Intel has also said it will use the Micro Signal DSP core to target 2.5G and 3G networks and combine it with its own XScale processor and flash memory products. Though Intel is likely to offer the three types of chips separately at first, the company plans to pack them all into a single chip, directly competing with TI's OMAP.

Analysts believe that TI and Intel/Analog are gearing for a battle over 2.5G and 3G businesses.

"Intel is going to be on a collision course with TI in the future," said Will Strauss, analyst with Forward Concepts in a recent interview. "What other companies have the manufacturing capacity to produce the amount of processors necessary" to hit 1 billion units? he said.

Though 3G networks are on the distant horizon in the United States, they will open in Asia later this year. 2.5G services based on GPRS or general packet radio service, are debuting across Europe. At least two large cellular networks in the United States, AT&T and Cingular (formerly Cellular One), are now testing GPRS.

GPRS, essentially and add-on for GSM networks, allows for data services with maximum data rates of up to 115KB per second. However, phones will likely offer about 56KB download and 14.4KB upload data rates. Transmission speeds at those rates are similar to that of a 56K modem and familiar to most computer users.