Motorola to release new multimedia app processor

Chip for high-end phones and PDAs will be announced on Tuesday

Motorola Inc. will announce a new applications processor Tuesday that is designed to improve the performance of multimedia applications and the security of mobile transactions in cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Basic voice-only cell phones have traditionally used two processors, a digital signal processor to manage the communication process, and another processor to operate the phone's keypad, contacts list, and calendar operations. But with the rise of new smart phones that incorporate digital cameras and connect to broadband networks, a third processor is often needed to ensure that audio and video playback runs smoothly.

Motorola, based in Schaumburg, Illinois, chose to add several hardware accelerators to the new i.MX21 chip in order to offload computationally intensive tasks required by software for security applications and streaming video, said Kathleen Wiggenhorn i.MX product marketing manager.

By executing those tasks in a hardware accelerator rather than by sending software instructions through the main processor, Motorola reduced the power consumption and improved the overall performance of the chip, Wiggenhorn said.

The hardware accelerator used for the security controller allows several pieces of sensitive information, such as credit card numbers or digital rights management code, to be stored in a secure portion of the chip away from the memory, Wiggenhorn said.

Motorola placed a USB (universal serial bus) controller on the chip so users could connect other peripheral devices such as printers or mice to their PDA or cell phone without having to go through a PC. The chip can switch from a USB device mode to a USB host mode, allowing it to either serve as the peripheral to a PC or the host of a device such as a printer, Wiggenhorn said.

The chip also supports smart LCD (liquid crystal displays) that refresh themselves only when they detect that an image has changed on the screen. Normal LCD displays must constantly refresh in order to detect changes in onscreen images, which consumes a great deal of power, Wiggenhorn said.

The i.MX21 is based on the ARM926EJ-S core developed by ARM Ltd. It can be used by device designers as the applications processor in a smart phone, or it can power a PDA as a stand-alone chip.

Several customers are currently evaluating the i.MX21, which will be available in sample volumes Tuesday. Current Motorola customers Tapwave Inc., makers of the forthcoming Palm OS-based Zodiac gaming handheld, and Siemens AG are examining the chip, Wiggenhorn said.

Texas Instruments Inc.'s OMAP family of processors and Intel Corp.'s XScale chips are the primary competitors to Motorola's MX family, said Ed Valdez, director of platform marketing for Motorola.

The new chip will likely be used in high-end smart phones and PDAs, Valdez said. Motorola's venerable Dragonball family will remain in production for low-end phones and PDAs, he said.

As smart phones become more accepted by users, phone designers will likely add more and more processors to handle tasks such as Wi-Fi, GPS (Global Positioning System) features, and Bluetooth, said Will Strauss, principal analyst with Forward Concepts Co. in Tempe, Arizona.

Battery life is considered by many users to be the most important component of a mobile device, and power is best conserved by using several processors running at relatively low clock speeds, as compared to using a single processor with a fast clock rate, Strauss said. Each processor is small enough where adding multiple chips doesn't increase the size of the phone's motherboard dramatically, he said.

The i.MX21 can be clocked as high as 400MHz, and will be generally available in the first quarter of 2004, Motorola said. Pricing has not been finalized, but is expected to be less than $20 in 10,000-unit quantities.

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