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Intel beefing up StrongARM push

Although it's moving slow, Intel took another step deeper into the market for information appliances by releasing a new version of the StrongARM processor.

Although it's moving slow, Intel took another step deeper into the market for information appliances by releasing a new version of the StrongARM processor aimed at handhelds and PC companions.

Intel said it is incorporating new features in the StrongARM SA-1110 and the SA-1111 companion chip that will enable improved software-based communications, speech recognition, and handwriting recognition in handheld and palmtop computing devices.

Another version of the chip, the SA-1500, is due in the second half of 1999, and will be coupled with a media processor for better graphics, the company said.

While best known for its PC and server microprocessors, the company has been trying to boost its presence in the market for processors for information appliances such as handheld devices and Internet set-top boxes, which use low-powered, low-cost chips like the StrongARM. StrongARMs can also be incorporated in networking equipment.

Progress, however, has been slow. Although the company acquired the StrongARM design from the former Digital Equipment in 1997, Intel remained relatively silent on the future of the popular processors until the spring of 1998, when it said it would continue to develop the chip family. At the Intel Developer Forum in September of 1998, company executives were extolling the virtues of the chip and its potential uses for set-tops and as an input-output gatekeeper in servers.

The excitement, however, has not as yet translated into the sort of huge marketing push Intel is known for. Hewlett-Packard adopted the StrongARM in its Jornada, a Windows CE device, last October. Other high profile deals have yet to follow in Jornada's wake.

Analysts say the company isn't backing away from the processor.

"Intel as a company may not be thrilled with the direction of the chip market, but they are not going to abandon the bottom end," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst with Mercury Research. "StrongARM plays a significant role [at Intel] in terms of future products outside of the PC space...The fact that they've got a win of that nature [referring to the HP deal] fairly early on as an Intel product, shows it appears to be viable."

Todd Trammell, StrongARM handheld marketing manager said the shortage of chips was due to strong demand, and that the company is investing in the fabrication facility formerly operated by Digital. McCarron noted that Intel will eventually move StrongARM production to current Intel fabrication facilities as further evidence of Intel's interest in the product.

Manufacturers have also been somewhat slow to accept the product, Trammell added, because of the transition from Digital.

"When the transition occurred, customers put their plans on hold or went with competitors," Trammell admitted. But many of those customers, and more, will be coming on board in the second half of the year. The company is also considering a marketing program similar, but not directly associated with, the widely recognized "Intel Inside" campaign, he said.

As for the chip itself, the SA-1110 will be offered in 133- and 206-MHz versions. It incorporates support for different and faster memory chips, and the SA-1111 companion chip adds support for external graphics controllers which can be added to drive external displays. It also incorporates PC card and flash card support, which lowers power consumption as well as overall system cost.

Production later this year
Production of both products is scheduled for the end of the third quarter of 1999. In quantities of 10,000, the SA-1110 processor at 206 MHz will be priced at $28 and the SA-1111 companion chip is priced at $15.

These designs will then be succeeded by the SA2, a new generation of StrongARM chips to be announced in 1999 with mass manufacturing to begin in 2000, executives have previously stated.

Unlike Intel chips, which are based on Intel's CISC (complex instruction set computer) design, the StrongARM revolves around the RISC (reduced instruction set computer) architecture. The ARM chip design is controlled by ARM, an English chip company. ARM licenses the design to over 20 chip manufacturers, including Intel.