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Processor wars: ARMed to the teeth

Jul 27, 2001 — by Rick Lehrbaum — from the LinuxDevices Archive

A commentary by Stephan Somogyi, of ZDNet News . . .

In the high-profile tech world, talk of processor wars is nothing new. Intel vs AMD is the standard battle of the behemoths, x86 vs PowerPC another big favorite, with the occasional bit of Alpha zealotry thrown in for variety's sake. What's interesting to me is that very little discussion goes on in the world at large about processors that are far more prolific than PC CPUs.

If I had to name one clear winner of the processor wars — any of them — then it's ARM.

Treading softly

The reason that ARM's victory has been so quiet is due to its inherently invisible nature.

ARM manages to keep a low profile because it's an intellectual property company rather than a foundry. ARM designs processor cores — both central processors as well as co-processors — and its licensees build chips around ARM's designs. Some licensees take ARM's cores and manufacture them with minimal changes, others integrate ARM's technology, but two companies have so-called architecture licenses, which allow them to build processors from scratch that execute the ARM instruction set: Intel and Motorola.

In Intel's case, it acquired the architecture license as part of purchasing Digital's semiconductor business, which included StrongARM, which later begat XScale. Motorola more recently purchased its license, without doubt because Palm had decided it was going to move from the 68k to ARM for its PDAs, and Motorola didn't want to lose Palm's evidently lucrative business.

Gadgets, not desktops

Personal computers based on ARM processors never really made the big time, though I still clearly recall a friend of mine flying to the UK in the mid-80s to buy an Archie in order to write really fast fractal software in ARM assembly. In addition to its uncomplicated processor designs and a well-regarded instruction set, ARM chips' greatest strength has been high performance coupled with low power consumption. Perfect for embedded processors.

This fact certainly isn't lost on clued-in embedded hardware designers, since ARM processors are teetering on the verge of ubiquity in widgets of all shapes, sizes, and functions. Nintendo's Game Boy Advance, mobile phones too numerous to mention, miscellaneous other consumer electronics devices, engine computers, imaging and networking hardware, and other product categories which I'm unaware of all have ARM chips within.

And in addition to all sorts of proprietary OSes, Linux runs well on ARM, as does NetBSD.

The PDA biz

What prompted my renewed interest in ARM this week was a combination of discovering Compaq Research's Mercury project, and the release of first details about Motorola's new ARM-based processor.

Mercury is pushing the envelope by integrating all sorts of whizzy features into a handheld. Mercury is based on Compaq's off-the-shelf H3600, which is sold as a PocketPC device, but has gained great favor as a particularly spiffy handheld Linux platform, albeit an expensive one.

While an undeniably cool proof-of-pudding, running Linux and XWindows isn't inherently useful without apps that take advantage of the platform. Mercury clearly intends to provide the momentum needed to make that happen. And with the amount of performance available in the 206MHz StrongARM, I expect very interesting things to come out of both the Mercury project as well as out of the ongoing development efforts at handhelds.org.

DragonBall MX1

Motorola swallowed its pride in what must've been a Herculean effort when it licensed an outside processor architecture. But from all angles, its move to become an ARM processor purveyor makes lots of sense. The DragonBall MX1 is the first fruit of Motorola's ARM license, and it looks like a winner.

Until now, Palm devices have been running fine on double-digit megahertz 68k processors, while the MX1 is claimed to run at speeds of up to 200MHz. And at $19 per chip in quantities of 10,000 — $8 more than the DragonBall VZ, the MX1's 68k-based cousin — the DragonBall MX1 is very inexpensive considering the features and performance it offers.

The MX1 is a veritable kitchen sink of handheld buzzword compliance. It contains all the hardware necessary to talk to SD and MemoryStick peripherals, it includes on-chip USB and LCD controllers, and even provides the non-radio portion of a Bluetooth interface.

With its multimedia acceleration features (which aren't detailed in any documentation I could find) and analog to digital converter, it shouldn't be too hard to build a phone around the MX1, either.

Finally, since the MX1 also includes ARM's pithily-named Thumb technology, the RAM requirements for ARM software shouldn't be too much greater than for the 68k code it's replacing.

Well ARMed

While it may not matter to you which processor sits inside your car's transmission computer, the increasing importance of handheld computers is going to make their processors a big deal. The traditional desktop — and even laptop — processor architectures aren't well-suited to these tasks, which is why a sea change is afoot. ARM has been around for a long time and has build a very solid foundation for its technology, based not on consumer marketing, but on delivering solid technology that meets its customers' needs.

With a clear future roadmap for increasingly higher-performance and many-featured processors, ARM looks to become the dominant force in the handheld market.



 
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