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Intel lends a hand for handheld software

The chipmaker recently opened a new lab to help software developers increase performance of applications that run on portable devices using its XScale PXA processor.

Intel is rolling up its sleeves to help improve applications that run on the handheld version of its XScale processors.

The chipmaker opened a new lab this week to help software developers increase performance of applications that run on portable devices using its XScale PXA processor. Located in Chandler, Ariz., the lab is part of Intel's Wireless Communications and Computing Group.

With this new lab, Intel is working more closely with developers, in some cases sending engineers to developers or bringing developers to its labs. Additionally, Intel is working on tools and techniques to improve the process of fine-tuning and creating applications.

"Whenever you have an architectural change (to a chip), software has to be optimized for it," said Gary Forni, who runs Intel's efforts with developers. "And that is what these labs are all about--how to take advantage of what these new processors can do. We want to make sure there is a good marriage between software and hardware."

The XScale PXA processors are the next generation of chips for handhelds and have clock speeds up to about twice as fast as the 206MHz StrongARM SA-1110 chips that they eventually will replace in the handheld market.

The handheld marriage between Intel and Microsoft went through a rocky period in late June, when Microsoft representatives said that the new processors did not boost performance in devices running Microsoft's Pocket PC 2002 operating system. Intel representatives stressed that many of the applications that could take advantage of the chips were not yet available, but that the processors improved other features, such as battery life and wireless networking.

"Often in this industry, you can have it so that hardware is ahead of software and vice versa," Forni said. Early work with developers resulted in improved performance of around 15 percent to 20 percent, said Forni, adding that he expected it to increase more as developers become more familiar with new tools.

Improvements to applications depend on the type of application. For multimedia games, it could mean smoother play and in cell phones it could mean less power consumption.

One of the developer tools that Intel will introduce next month at its annual developers conference is VTune. The performance-monitoring tool demonstrates how well code is running and helps locate bottlenecks.

The program is free to developers, and response has been greater than expected, said Forni, adding that the first month of lab time has already been reserved. Intel is working with large companies such as IBM, Macromedia and BEA, as well as smaller companies such as Dendrite and Allscript.

Intel also plans to open two other labs: one in Stockholm, Sweden, and another in Shanghai. With all three labs, the chipmaker expects to work directly with hundreds of developers on thousands of applications. In addition to the labs, Intel will continue to offer phone support to developers.

There are two different lines in the XScale PXA family: the PXA250 and the PXA210. The PXA250 chip come in speeds of 200MHz, 300MHz and 400MHz and is aimed at the handheld market. Clock speeds for the PXA210 are 133MHz and 200MHz--lower than clock speeds for Intel's StrongARM processors--and are aimed at entry-level handhelds and cell phones.