Intel adds power-saving features to XScale

XScale is Intel's answer to an increasingly wireless and media-focused world. As portable gadgets like handheld computers and Web-enabled cell phones proliferate, so processors will be required that use little power but still pack a punch. Devices eventually will run applications like video conferencing, interactive video games and other programs that are demanding on both chips and battery life. XScale could be the solution to some of these issues, as it provides the basis for chips that use little energy to start up and employs several techniques for lowering power requirements, Intel officials said.

"We wanted to make something that had high performance and low power consumption within the same microarchitecture," said Lawrence Clark, an Intel engineer, during a presentation on XScale at Intel's developer forum held last week . "We wanted something that could span from the Internet's backbone to cellphones."

As part of its low power attack, Intel added a new mode to its XScale core. Previous cores had only idle and sleep options. XScale now offers the option of a stand-by mode that keeps data in the core's memory while running on extremely low power. The new stand-by mode requires only 100 micro watts of energy at room temperature, Clark said.

The added mode is one of a number of changes Intel made in order to ensure that devices run as long as possible. The vendor made sure wake-up speeds for a device were quick, hoping to keep impatient tech-savy youngsters happy. In addition, Intel worked to make sure it could adjust voltage and frequency while the core is running. This allows the core to constantly adjust to how much processing power is needed for an application and helps balance the fragile line between power and performance.

"We only used one instruction to change the voltage or frequency," Clark said. "This allows the OS to increase or decrease the processing budget quite easily."

Intel will use XScale as a way to boost performance beyond the previously used StrongArm designs.

The chip giant released the IOP310 I/O processor chipset as the first product built on the XScale microarchitecture at a core speed of 600Mhz in September of last year. The chipset contains a 80200 processor based on XScale and the 80312 I/O companion chip. I/O processors can increase I/O subsystem performance and are often used in storage, networking, workstations and for embedded applications.

Since that release, the vendor has been quiet with XScale-based hardware; however, Intel did confirm last week that a processor using the technology will be released this year for use with mobile phones and handheld devices. In addition, Intel is working on two projects to make XScale chips using a more advanced, 0.13 micron manufacturing process to be introduced in the second half of this year. The new process technology could help Intel boost the performance of its chips and at the same time shrink their physical size.

All XScale products are compatible with the ARM v.5TE instruction set, which ensures that Intel's technology can run software, operating systems and tools that are v.5TE compliant. In addition, XScale uses Intel's IPP (integrated performance primitives), which are designed to help companies speed products to market by allowing developers to use pre-written code segments for low-level functions.

Intel will shed more light on its XScale plans as the year goes on.

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Ashlee Vance

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