More Power, More Multimedia, and Maybe Linux

Last week, we looked at the current crop of CPUs for handheld PDAs and smart phones. This week, we’ll look to the future, and see how upcoming chip releases will affect the handheld market. Although some trends — such as ever-increasing clock rates and the popularity of designs from ARM Ltd. — seem sure to continue, others point to possible market shifts. For example, there’s AMD’s push into the handheld space and its strategic support of Linux-based devices.

AMD’s Alchemists

By purchasing Alchemy Semiconductor last year, AMD not only got a ticket into the embedded processor space. It acquired a team of talented engineers that had been working on handheld CPUs for years.

“This is the same group that designed the StrongARM,” says Tim Draper, product manager for the MIPS32 business unit of AMD. “And now they are going to do the same thing for MIPS that they did for StrongARM.”

By reengineering the MIPS core, says Draper, the Alchemy team was able to closely couple the memory to the CPU, minimizing the internal latency and overhead that’s slowed other handheld chips such as Intel’s Xscale.

The 32-bit Alchemy Au1000 — available in 266MHz, 400MHz, and 500MHz flavors — includes 16K instruction and 16K data caches and system-on-a-chip peripherals including a USB host and memory, AC97 audio, and two 10/100Mbps Ethernet controllers. It runs several operating systems, from Linux and Windows CE.Net to the embedded favorite VxWorks. By using an 0.13-micron manufacturing process, Draper boasts, AMD was able to bring the 400MHz chip’s power consumption down to half a watt.

In addition to handheld PCs, the Au1000 and its siblings — the Au1500, which adds a PCI controller, and the Au1100, whose 400MHz version draws only a quarter-watt despite including LCD and PC Card controllers — could power any number of devices, from automotive entertainment and navigation systems to information appliances. Alchemy chips could also be used in a variety of embedded system where low power consumption is a priority, including wireless access points, routers, gateways, printers, point-of-sale terminals, or set-top boxes. The Au1500 can be found in some Sony LCD projectors and Apple’s AirPort Extreme 802.11g wireless base station.

OpenPDA and Handheld Linux

To show the Au1100’s potential for the handheld market, AMD recently teamed up with Metrowerks to create OpenPDA, a Linux-based software platform for PDAs and smart phones. Along with embedded versions of Linux and the Opera Web browser, the OpenPDA platform includes a typical PIM software suite with calendar, contact and to-do lists, and e-mail client. The firms also released a software development kit so third parties can work on other applications, such as multimedia players, games, and voice recorders.

“Having played with it, I can say it’s really impressive,” says Draper. “I see no reason why Linux isn’t a viable [alternative] to Microsoft’s software solutions.” Metrowerks plans to release a full development kit for building Linux-based handhelds later this quarter, and Draper predicts that OEM products will reach the market by midyear.

IBM recently announced a similar reference design using its PowerPC 405LP microprocessor and MontaVista Software’s Linux Consumer Electronics Edition. Big Blue plans to have an integrated solution available for manufacturers later this year, but says it won’t enter the PDA market itself.

IBM is also working with Sharp to build a corporate version of the latter’s Zaurus handheld — the Enterprise Edition Zaurus, which will enable employees to check inventory, order supplies, and access company networks. Sharp recently boosted the performance of the Linux-based Zaurus by upgrading from Intel’s 206MHz StrongARM to a 400MHz Xscale CPU for the folding-keyboard, VGA-screened, 7.5-ounce SL-C700 model sold in Japan.

Another part of the Asian market, Korea, might be the first to see a darkhorse system-on-a-chip contender. Last year, Samsung announced it was working to combine a processor, customized memory, and peripheral logic — including USB host, LCD, flash-card controllers and even MPEG-4 playback support — on a single piece of silicon that would draw only 1 milliwatt per megahertz. For now, however, Samsung is using Intel’s Xscale CPU in a prototype handheld computer/phone/TV tuner/GPS satellite navigator.

ARM’s and Intel’s Plans

As we learned last week, ARM is working on improving the RISC-based core technology it licenses to chipmakers, boosting clock speeds and enabling greater use of video and graphics for messaging and entertainment. While most of the British company’s customers are developing products based on the ARM9 generation for this year, new options are on the horizon.

“We just released [the eleventh-generation] ARM1136, offering 70 percent more performance, to approximately half a dozen partners developing chipsets for the wireless/PDA and consumer market,” says David Cormie, product manager for CPU products at ARM. “Expect to see numerous ARM11-based offerings next year.”

Garmin, for example, is using Motorola’s new, ARM9-based DragonBall MXL in its upcoming iQue 3600, which will be the first PDA to include integrated GPS technology. The iQue 3600 will run Palm OS 5 and combine the standard Palm apps –such as the address book, date book, expense tracker, and to-do list — with an MP3 player, voice recorder, and vibrating alarm. Garmin plans to have the device on retail shelves in the second quarter for an estimated price of $589.

Intel Enhances Xscale and Moves To Manitoba

Intel is about to release a new version of its XScale processor that will run at the same clock rates (200MHz, 300MHz, and 400MHz) as today’s PXA250, but improve on two of the traditional weak spots for handheld processors: power management and bus speed. According to early reports, the XScale PXA255 will boost the battery life of handheld devices by 30 to 50 percent by dropping its voltage from 1.5 to 1.3 volts, while accessing memory and peripherals via a 200MHz bus, for twice the bandwidth of the current chip’s bus.

Intel has sent samples of the PXA255 to customers, and expects the CPU to start showing up in Sony, Toshiba, and HP handhelds by the end of March. Intel isn’t, however, planning a formal announcement of the new chip, so if you’re shopping for a PDA this spring, be sure to read the fine print to find the PXA255 instead of the older PXA250.

Intel has also begun sampling a new embedded processor codenamed “Manitoba.” This chip integrates an ARM core with a digital signal processor (DSP) and flash memory, letting OEMs reduce the size and power consumption of wireless-enabled handhelds, General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) transmitters, or cell phones.

Smarter Phones Than Maxwell Smart’s

Manitoba won’t be the first CPU-and-DSP combination, as Texas Instruments has offered its OMAP1510 since last year. Last week, TI announced the extension of two unique processor lines — the OMAP161x line, similar to the 1510, and the OMAP 73x series, which integrate an applications processor and GSM/GPRS modem.

According to TI, its latest processors increase the performance of advanced handheld applications such as graphics and multimedia content or Java programs by as much as eight times. The company is particularly proud of the OMAP family’s graphics performance, because it — like most handheld CPU vendors — are counting on increased gaming and video usage to drive next-generation cell phone and PDA sales.

Although digital camera- and game-equipped phones are just hitting the U.S. market, chipmakers are ready to deliver the processing power now. Last week, for example, Nokia announced that by year end it’ll release the N-Gage, a combination phone, MP3 player, and gaming system for overseas markets. The current specs call for a dual-chip design, with a DSP handling audio and telephony tasks and a 104MHz ARM processor to play games and run organizer functions.

This will be a huge step for the handheld space, and the likes of Sony, Palm, and even Nintendo will likely follow suit. Just don’t be surprised to find one of the more robust processors described above being selected. Even for handheld devices, a 104MHz chip nowadays just isn’t as fast as it used to be.

Categories: Technology