Intel XScale: 1GHz in your palm

New processor architecture from Intel can run fast or consume little power - the developer decides

At its developer conference Wednesday, Intel demonstrated the first silicon from its XScale Microarchitecture -- a beefed up version of the chip maker's StrongARM architecture -- for use in a wide range of non-PC applications, running at speeds up to 1GHz.

The new chips will benefit from XScale's redesigned processor architecture, which adds elements of Intel processor architecture but retains extensions from and compliance with the Advanced Research Machines' (ARM) processor core.

StrongARM, XScale's predecessor, was based on the ARM licence granted to Digital Equipment. Intel later purchased it as part of a patent-infringement lawsuit settlement between the companies.

"It's built off of the StrongARM architecture base to deliver unprecedented performance in terms of milliwatts per mips [millions of instructions per second]," said Ron Smith, vice president and general manager of Intel's wireless communications and computing group.

"We are going to use this core architecture in every piece of the equation in the wireless Internet infrastructure and client [business]."

Intel demonstrated the first silicon from a chip based on XScale, manufactured on Intel's 0.18-micron process.

Running the benchmark program DryStone 2.1, Intel showed the chip running at a core voltage of as low as 0.7 volts and a clock speed of 200MHz.

At this level, it was consuming about 55 milliwatts of power. Smith, however, said power consumption could go as low as 10 milliwatts.

"At 10 milliwatts, that means that we can operate for long periods of time on a single AA battery," said Smith, who gave a keynote speech Wednesday at Intel's Autumn Developer Forum.

At the high-end of its scale, this particular chip was shown running at 1GHz (1,000MHz), with a core voltage of 1.75 volts. It consumed 1.75 watts of power.

"We borrowed a lot of concepts, a lot of technology from IA world (in order to develop XScale)," Smith said.

The architecture uses, for example, Intel's Superpipelined processor pipeline technology, which allows it to scale to the higher clock speeds. The pipeline is an important chip feature, which lines up instructions to be processed.

Allowing the chip to scale voltage and clock speed is a dynamic voltage management technology, developed by Intel, that allows the same processor core to run at different voltages and, therefore, scale through clock speeds and increase or decrease power consumption.

The technology is similar to Intel's SpeedStep, allowing the processor to scale performance to meet the needs of applications running on it. However, developers will be able to set performance parameters as they see fit. The chip also adds Intel Media Processing Technology, a set of multimedia instructions similar to those used in Intel's desktop chips.

XScale architecture will be used to create chips for a wide range of devices, such as handhelds and networking and communications infrastructure products, based on Intel Exchange Architecture, Smith said. Those chips are expected to begin shipping later this year.

Smith said XScale chips will spawn a number of products, including communications equipment and Internet infrastructure equipment, such as a router or a switch.

It will also be used in Intel's IXA, input/output processors and to develop chips for handheld devices, similar to Compaq Computer's iPAQ Pocket PC. These chips will also show up in wireless PDAs and smartphones, he said.

Intel claims operating system support for the chip from Microsoft's Windows CE, Symbian Epoc, and Wind River Systems VXWorks and IXWorks.

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