Intel ups the ante with XScale PDA chips

Only a week after first demonstrating its new chip family aimed at PDAs (personal digital assistants) and other handheld devices, Intel Corp. has begun shipping to hardware manufacturers small quantities of the first two chips from that family, the company announced.

Intel began shipping the first chips based on its long awaited XScale architecture Monday: the PXA250, aimed at high-end PDAs, and the PXA210, aimed at mobile phones and entry-level PDAs. The PXA250 comes in speeds of 400MHz, 300MHz and 200MHz, while the PXA210 is available in 200MHz and 133MHz models. Both chips are based on a core from chip design house ARM Ltd., and are expected to be available in devices by the middle of this year, Intel said.

But don't expect XScale to immediately kill Intel's current family of handheld-device chips, called StrongARM, said David B. Rogers, communications manager with Intel. "(StrongARM) is still a viable product; we have a lot of customers building new devices on it," he said. While the smaller, faster XScale chips will eventually take over for the three-year-old StrongARM family, Intel will be keeping it around for "the near term," Rogers said.

One analyst said that Intel wouldn't bill the new chips as StrongARM killers because it could damage sales of existing devices using StrongARM chips, including Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Jornada and Compaq Computer Corp.'s iPaq. "The announcement was delayed until this time because companies like HP and Compaq didn't want Intel to make this announcement a month ago at CES," said Todd Kort, principal analyst with Gartner Inc., referring to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Had Intel announced the XScale chips at CES, it could have damaged sales of existing devices, Kort said.

The XScale chips are built using the 0.18-micron manufacturing progress, which means they can be built in any of Intel's plants that make processors of the same size, including some of its Pentium III and Pentium 4 families. StrongARM chips are larger 0.35-micron chips, so production is limited to plants that use that technology; none of Intel's PC processors use that technology.

In addition to having higher clock-speeds than StrongARM, the XScale family also consumes much less power. For example, the 300MHz PXA250 consumes roughly half the power of the 206MHz StrongARM SA-1110, which is used in PDAs such as Compaq's iPaq and HP's Jornada.

The new processor family from Intel will be one of three which will power future devices running PalmSource Inc.'s new operating system, Palm OS 5. Motorola Inc. and Texas Instruments Inc. (TI) will also make chips for these Palm OS 5-based devices.

Gartner's Kort said that the offerings from all three chip companies could bring Palm-based devices up to par in terms of performance with devices based on Microsoft Corp.'s competing Pocket PC platform. "Palm has significantly closed the gap on the Pocket PC folks," Kort said. "But what this will do to Palm is that new devices will probably cost somewhat the same as Pocket PC devices do today." Kort said that the new chips will bring advantages, including faster processors and more memory, to the devices, but at the expense of knocking the price up into the US$400 range.

Both of the two new XScale processors also include support for a "turbo mode" feature which lets them change clock speed on the fly to preserve battery power, Rogers said. For example, if a device using a 400MHz chip is downloading a video file it can preserve power by running at 200MHz, but jump up to 400MHz to view the video, he said. Intel also added its Media Processing Technology to the chips, designed to increase the quality of audio, video and gaming applications, he said.

While Intel said the first products using the processors will hit the market in the middle of this year, Gartner's Kort said that these chips could appear in products much sooner. "I think Intel is doing its big licensees a favor by saying mid-2002," he said. "It protects (licensees) and they're going to beat (availability) expectations this way."

Kort said the first device using the processor to become available will likely be the Pocket LOOX from Germany's Fujitsu Siemens Computers BV, which is expected to launch at next month's CeBIT trade show in Germany.

The chips are available for testing immediately. The 200MHz PXA210 is priced at US$19, while the 400MHz PXA250 costs $39.20. Both prices are in quantities of 10,000 units, a standard measurement for chip pricing. Intel's 206MHz StrongARM SA-1110 is priced at $35 in 10,000 unit quantities.

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