Next-gen Intel chip makes handheld debut

Intel's XScale-based PXA250 makes its first appearance in Toshiba's e740 Pocket PC, but speed increases are uneven

Intel's next generation of embedded processors made its debut on Monday in Toshiba's e740 Pocket PC device, but the processor may not initially live up to high expectations, according to beta testers.

Toshiba officially launched the e740 on Monday, although the device had appeared on shelves in the US last week. It follows on the heels of the e310 in April, a slim design that did away with the integrated Compact Flash expansion bay (read ZDNet UK's review here).

The e740, which will be available in the UK in early July, is the first handheld on the market to use Intel's new PXA250 processor, based on Intel's XScale technology, which is designed to run at higher clock speeds while consuming less power than the StrongARM chips that currently power most Pocket PCs. The e740's other claim to fame is optional built-in wireless connectivity, either Wi-Fi (another name for 802.11b wireless networking) or Bluetooth; either technology can also be added via a separate CF or Secure Digital card.

"This new PDA offers portability, ease of use and wireless connectivity -- it's a core offering in our mobile computing strategy," said Oscar Koenders, Toshiba vice president of worldwide product planning, in a statement.

The PXA250 runs at 400MHz, a significant jump over Intel's ubiquitous 206MHz StrongARM chips, but beta testers have said that the new chip makes little difference to the speed of everyday software operations. Microsoft has not yet committed to producing an Xscale-specific version of the Pocket PC operating system, so the lack of speed increase may be due to lack of optimisation in the operating system. It may also be due to aspects of the new chip's architecture, or because of design decisions in the e470.

However, Toshiba said that computing-intensive operations such as multimedia would show marked improvement over StrongARM-based PDAs.

Intel emphasised that XScale is completely compatible with software written for StrongARM processors, and said that there should be no performance degradation.

XScale will also appear in devices from Acer and other manufacturers in coming weeks. It is also to be used in chips powering Mira devices, which run on Microsoft software and combine elements of a flat-screen display and a tablet PC.

Not many other PDA makers are offering integrated wireless Pocket PCs, with Compaq's iPaq as a notable exception. Integration allows the CF and SD/Multi Media Card slots to be left free for memory expansion or other accessories.

However, 802.11b is not necessarily ideal for devices with limited battery life as it is much more power-hungry than Bluetooth, which is designed specifically for gadgets such as mobile phones and PDAs. In messages posted on the Web, beta testers of the e740 said that use of the built-in wireless LAN greatly shortened the device's battery life.

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