Semiconductor makers showed off the next-generation chips that will power future Palm devices this week at the PalmSource developer conference in London, demonstrating high-powered applications such as video encoding and high-quality sound.
But while multimedia and fast processors might sound like nothing new to Pocket PC users, chipmaker Motorola predicts that next-generation Palm devices will carry out processor-hogging applications while using as little as half the battery power -- crucial in a portable, battery-powered device. The result: twice the battery life.
Palm's three main silicon partners are Texas Instruments, Motorola and Intel, although other manufacturers can also make Palm chips.
Motorola was demonstrating a version of Palm OS 5 -- the next-generation operating system -- running on the DragonBall MX1, its first ARM-based processor. A Motorola executive said that even though the MX1 is based on a related architecture to the Intel StrongARM chips that power most Pocket PC devices -- both are based on the ARM9 family -- Palm's software would prove far more power-efficient.
"Microsoft has made big improvements in Pocket PC power efficiency over, say, a laptop. But a Palm device carrying out the same functionality as a Pocket PC will still use about half the power," said Kyle Harper, business manager for Motorola's Wireless and Baseband Systems Group.
"It's the difference between taking technology derived from a PC and making it more energy efficient, and something that's designed from scratch to treat power as a scarce resource," he said. "There's a lot you can do when you don't have a huge operating system footprint to deal with."
At PalmSource, Motorola demonstrated a real-time MPEG video encoder-decoder and small video camera running on Palm OS 5 and a DragonBall MX1. Harper said a similar application running on a Pocket PC would require a processor running about twice as fast as current 206MHz StrongARM chips, because of operating system overheads.
Palm hopes the new software and hardware combination will allow it to introduce high-end devices to complement its current range of lower-performance organisers. It could also allow for devices with high-performance features and a mainstream price.
The MX1 will sell for about $13 per unit in volumes of 10,000 or more, Harper said, and that price will begin to drop as units reach into the millions.
Harper said that Motorola plans to introduce a full range of MX processors and expects them to reach into every price point. That would be an innovation in the handheld market, which so far has been divided between low-powered, relatively inexpensive Palm devices and their far pricier Pocket PC counterparts.
"There's nothing inherent in the ARM technology that limits it to high-end devices," he said. But the most advanced add-ons, such as video recording, won't make it into £70 devices for a while, he said.
Even lower-end devices with ARM processors are likely to see a performance boost. "Certainly the performance is the main reason for doing this," said Steve Sakoman, chief product officer with PalmSource, which handles Palm OS development.
However, less costly Palms will still be using today's hardware for some time yet, since the current 68000 series DragonBall is expected to coexist with the ARM processors for about two years, according to industry observers.
Devices running the current Palm OS will also be able to opt for the DragonBall Super VZ, which Motorola calls a "stopgap" chip between the 68000 and the MX1. Sony's Clie PEG-NR70V, launching in the UK early next month, is the first to use the Super VZ, allowing it to offer a built-in camera and audio and video playback.
While Motorola still expects Palm to lead the handheld market in two years' time, Motorola's Harper noted that the company isn't limiting its options, tailoring its MX line to work with Symbian OS, Linux and Windows CE as well as Palm. "Microsoft is finally going to get it right. They're going to come up with a device profile that allows Pocket PC to get some volumes," Harper said.
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