AMD pushes for 64-bit mobile computing

The chip maker licenses MIPS Technologies' 64-bit architecture, enabling it to design processors for next-generation mobile devices

AMD has licensed an advanced architecture from MIPS Technologies in a move to boost its new embedded chips division, which makes processors for "embedded" devices such as handheld computers and information appliances.

The chip company announced at the Embedded Processor Forum on Monday that it will license the 64-bit MIPS64 instruction set architecture, which is particularly suited to high-performance applications such as multimedia and encryption. Chips based on MIPS64 will ultimately be used in Internet-enabled devices, AMD said.

AMD's current embedded chips are based on the product line of Alchemy Semiconductor, which AMD acquired in February, and use the MIPS32 architecture.

"AMD strongly believes in the MIPS architecture, and that the 64-bit MIPS architecture will complement our current 32-bit MIPS32 technology-based products and ultimately, will serve new and different markets," said Dr Billy Edwards, vice president and general manager of AMD's Personal Connectivity Solutions (PCS) group, in a statement.

Microsoft endorsed the architecture for its Windows CE .Net operating system, designed for embedded products like Pocket PC PDAs and smartphones. However, current Pocket PC 2002 PDAs run only on chips based on designs from ARM Holdings, MIPS' UK-based rival, which is dominant in handheld computers and mobile phones.

Licensing the 64-bit architecture is a vote of confidence in MIPS. Nevertheless, some analysts say that reliance on MIPS designs, rather than those of ARM, will be a hindrance for AMD -- particularly when it attempts to crack the mobile phone market in two years or so. "It would not be surprising to see AMD emulate or incorporate an ARM instruction set into (mobile phone and handheld computing devices) at some point in the future," said Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds, when PCS was originally formed.

MIPS technology has been deployed in chips for devices including the PlayStation2, digital set-top boxes from Motorola and HP laser printers.

Sixty-four-bit chips handle instructions in larger chunks, allowing them to achieve better performance than the 32-bit chips which are currently standard in PCs and many embedded devices. MIPS64 is capable of handling both 32-bit and 64-bit code.

Alchemy, formed by former employees of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), specialises in energy-efficient chips built around designs from MIPS, which is the chip spinoff of SGI. MIPS chips compete against processors built around designs from Hitachi as well as from ARM. These chips run at slower speeds than PC processors but consume far less energy.

While the group will initially concentrate on expanding Alchemy's Au line of processors, AMD also plans to move into the market for chips for 802.11 wireless networking systems and other components necessary for building consumer-electronics products. The group will work closely with AMD's flash-memory division, one of the company's two dominant businesses.

PCS builds on AMD's core memory and PC processor divisions, and allows AMD to move into new markets. By the same token, AMD needed to move into this market to protect its flash memory contracts.

Intel, which sells processors and flash memory, is on a bundling rampage in this market, and will sell customers memory, processors, circuit boards, networking chips and even blueprints for building devices. By selling complete kits, Intel can lock in its customer base.

CNET's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.

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