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Moto's Cheap Chips

Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) is talking up the performance and power efficiency of its Dragonball MX series of processors, which are aimed at wireless devices such as cellphones and handhelds. However, the firm may do better to concentrate on the knock-down prices of its new ARM-based chips, according to Markus Levy, senior analyst at the Microprocessor Report.

Motorola is a late entrant to the ARM chip market: It introduced its first ARM-based product -- the MX1 -- in June 2001. Major rivals in the sector include Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) with its XScale/StrongARM family and Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN) with its OMAP product line.

ARM chips are an unofficial standard in the wireless industry, used by over 75 percent of the world's cellphone manufacturers and in plenty of other devices that require reasonable processing muscle without a huge power drain. The company behind the reduced instruction set computer (RISC) architecture at the core of the design is Cambridge, U.K.-based ARM Ltd. (Nasdaq: ARMHY; London: ARM). It doesn't build the processors itself, but rather designs them and then licenses the architecture.

For a long period, Motorola stayed away from the ARM camp, as it had its own 68k-based Dragonball line instead. Until recently, these Dragonball chips were the only type used in the Palm Inc. (Nasdaq: PALM) range of computers, so Motorola could boast that its chips were used in the majority of personal digital assistants.

However, in the last couple of years it has become obvious that Palm was going to move to the more powerful ARM architecture for version 5 of its handheld operating system. So in 2001, Motorola made the jump as well.

Now Motorola is doing the rounds with its second chip, the MXL, which uses the ARM 920T core. The MXL is clocking in at around 200MHz, around half the speed of its Intel rivals. However, Motorola says that clock speed is not the only factor in performance and is talking up the throughput of its chip [ed. note: in the trade, we call this pulling an Apple].

Kyle Harper, manager of global handheld platform and marketing development says that the MXL has twice the throughput of the Intel PX250 chip -- when it is run at 200MHz -- and twice the battery life whatever speed the Intel silicon runs at.

Throughput refers to the overall performance of the computing system. In this particular case, Harper says that Motorola's design of the bus and memory connectors has contributed to the overall performance.

"It is not that simple," according to Markus Levy of the Microprocessor Report. He says that Intel's 250 has a 32k onboard cache, compared to Motorola's 16K. "That makes a big difference [to performance]."

Levy also notes that Intel has implemented Single Instruction stream Multiple Data stream (SIMD) capabilities on the XScale family. "This enables the processor to divide up the data and do two or more operations," Levy says. He says that this can lead to a 60 to 80 percent improvement in performance, particularly with multimedia operations.

However, Levy does admit that Motorola has one big advantage over Intel and other rivals: At $10, the MXL is one of the most inexpensive ARM processors on the market. "The MXL is a great deal for what it is," says Levy. By comparison, the Intel PX 250 is $39, and TI's offering is $28.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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