Embedded Systems Drive Today's Mobile Devices

Intel's XScale Core Processor Family is ARM-Compliant While Providing an Advanced Feature Set for Personal Mobile Electronic Devices.

By George Graves

Two powerful trends are driving revolutionary changes in the mobile electronic-device environment. The first is the exponential growth of computing power, component integration, and reduced cost. This trend is leading to the emergence of a new generation of intelligent devices. The second trend is the convergence of this computational power with Internet connectivity and digital media. This convergence is happening in conjunction with the explosive growth of IP-based services and wireless technologies.

Intel sees this market being driven by a number of factors:

  • The need for flexible, fast, and reliable access to digital content both on the road and at home
  • Content on demand
  • Multiple-function devices that will merge all of the consumer's digital-content needs into one small, light, and efficient package
  • Operating environments that are easy to use and quick to learn, thereby requiring no special skills or education
  • Access to personal content, such as work or home computer files, anywhere and anytime
From the developer side, the driving forces are seen as:
  • Fast time-to-market
  • Design portability
  • Scalable designs that can grow with the product line and not incur large redesigns for added features
  • Low-cost, flexible solutions
To meet these requirements, a growing number of vendors are looking at the use of embedded processor cores. The success of Advanced RISC Machine's (ARM's) line of embedded processors and controllers coupled with the "Thumb" instruction set has set the standard for portable, battery-powered-device proliferation. The liberal ARM licensing program has enabled a number of semiconductor firms all over the world to license both the basic ARM-core architecture and the programming environment. In doing so, they can expand both the depth and reach of the ARM processor's functionality.

Being perhaps the world's foremost provider of microprocessors and microcontrollers, Intel saw the wisdom of becoming an ARM signatory early on. With an eye to the future convergence of mobile technologies, Intel has embarked upon a policy of developing ARM-compliant cores. Those cores operate at the top of the range to provide speed, interoperability, and low cost.

The XScale Family of Embedded Processors
Intel's XScale family of ARM 5TE-compliant processors for embedded applications is ideal for today's growing market in portable, personal mobile-electronic devices. This market segment requires high-performance core processors coupled with flexible I/Os and a myriad of companion chips. Those chips can minimize the parts count and power requirements while adapting themselves to a wide range of application-specific solutions.

The Intel XScale family of processors features an advanced Super-Pipelined RISC core coupled with an I/O tailored to many levels of design sophistication and complexity. Now in its fifth generation of I/O processors, the XScale family offers a compelling set of integrated peripherals meeting a wide range of requirements. The compatibility with ARM's 5TE programming model, which includes the latest ARM DSP and enhanced additions to the "Thumb" instruction set, gives the design engineer a familiar, well-defined, well-supported path to market. By combining Intel's performance with ARM's almost ubiquitous deployment in the developer community, subsequent design changes and enhancements become easier than ever. Because of the compatibility with a wide range of operating systems including Linux and CE, even complex user interfaces can be engineered with full confidence.

The highlights of the XScale IOP321 include the following (see the Figure):
  • Performance: As a single-chip I/O-processing solution, the IOP321 implements tight integration of the Intel XScale core at up to 600 MHz with peripherals designed to maximize data throughput. The chip also features a 200-MHz internal bus and 200-MHz DDR SDRAM interface with support for up to 1 GByte of memory.
  • PCI-X: The IOP321 is the first Intel I/O processor with a single high-bandwidth,
  • 64-bit, 133-MHz PCI-X bus. It provides connections to the fastest parallel PCI-X bus-architecture systems.
  • Flexibility: The peripheral bus provides an interface to external components
  • that don�t interface directly to the PCI bus. Such components include Flash memory and optional ASICs, DSPs, or legacy devices to meet application needs.
  • Cost-effectiveness/flexibility: The IOP321 is an affordable solution for price-sensitive embedded, storage, and networking applications.
  • Compact package size: The 544L PBGA has small dimensions (35 x 35 mm) to conserve board real estate.
  • Code-compatibility: The IOP321 is code compatible with the Intel® IOP310 I/O-processor chip set, Intel StrongARM* SA-110. In addition, it is supported by extensive Intel XScale technology tools.
  • Low power consumption: The combination of the low-power Intel XScale core and the implementation of a power-optimized, highly integrated peripheral set delivers low power consumption. It also avoids the need for a heatsink.
  • Compatibility: As with all Intel I/O processors, the IOP321 is a fully validated I/O solution designed to work with Intel Architecture processors, chip sets, and server products.
  • Manufacturing technology: The IOP321 is designed and manufactured using Intel's 0.18-micron process technology.
Fast Time-to-Market
Time-to-market is vital in today's competitive marketplace. Intel's XScale family provides the advantage of a familiar software-development environment. This environment is supported by a feature- rich selection of proven development tools and applications in the latest ARM instruction set. The combination of a valid hardware configuration with software-development tools can save weeks or even months in the actual design cycle.

Mobile-Products Market Segment
Mobile products are defined as handheld devices, which are battery-powered. These devices include voice and data phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), personal media devices (MP3 players), geo-positioning devices, Bluetooth peripherals, and many more. By looking at these segments, one can get a better understanding of where the market is today and where it is heading in the future:
  • Media players: MP3 and other so-called media players have moved out of the realm of being "techie-toys." They are now the preferred way for millions of people worldwide to listen to music. The next generation of portable players promises to mix audio and video as well as still digital pictures into a single portable entertainment device. With their high-performance and low power requirements, the Intel XScale microarchitecture processors are at the heart of the migration path from audio to video.
  • Cell phones: Far from being simple communications devices, portable telephones have evolved into complex, multifunctional devices. These devices are destined to combine all of the portable electronics technologies into one unit. Today, cell phones double as PDAs (or do PDAs double as telephones?). Cell phones also play MP3 music and display video, act as still cameras, allow Instant Messaging, surf the web, send and receive e-mail, and even act as geo-positioning navigation devices. This convergence calls for high throughput, fast processing, and extensive I/O from the processor. The XScale family of processors-especially the new IOP321 is well suited to all of these tasks due to its flexible and prodigious I/O coupled with its support for MAC-style coprocessors and high-performance/low-power cores. Phones from such prestigious companies as Siemens, Voq, Telefonica, T-Mobile, Samsung, Vodaphone, and Ericsson-to name a few - use XScale for their smart phones.
  • PDAs: The personal-digital-assistant market has changed drastically in the last few years. Once dominated by Palm, the market now supports a number of players using a myriad of interface operating systems. Those OSs include the very popular Microsoft Windows CE interface as well as such proprietary interfaces as Sharp's Zarus and Sony's Cile line. In addition, the aforementioned Sharp Zarus and HP's iPAQ line are just a few of the more than 165 models of personal digital assistants that are using the Intel XScale family of embedded processors as of this writing. The shift to high performance and extreme flexibility in the platform architecture of today's PDAs explains why Intel XScale core processors are now showing up in volume for these applications.
  • Personal-navigation devices: So-called GPS or geo-positioning devices - both handheld and automobile- based - are becoming more and more affordable as levels of integration increase with greater usage. Car navigation systems are becoming almost commonplace in upscale automobiles. Aftermarket devices can still command high prices. As an option purchased with a new car, however, the prices can be quite reasonable. Just as automotive air conditioning has migrated from being an expensive luxury option in even the most costly automobiles to being standard equipment, the GPS navigation aid will find its way into more and more new cars. The personal, battery-powered GPS device is available at price points of around $100 (U.S.). The price goes up from there, adding detailed maps, color LCD screens, and a plethora of features like automatic path-finding. Currently, more than a dozen models of GPS devices at all price points employ Intel XScale I/O processors.

In the last few years, the growth of feature-rich mobile-computing devices has burgeoned beyond anyone's wildest dreams. These devices will continue to converge into a single handheld portable device that meets all of one's needs for access to data and communications. At the same time, the requirement for flexible, powerful, and highly integrated processors also will grow. Operating at the top of the embedded market in terms of overall performance and I/O expansion, the Intel XScale line of processors will combine the familiarity and universal support of the latest ARM "Thumb" instruction set with a feature set that puts it in the forefront of technology convergence in mobile electronics.

George Graves has more than 30 years of experience as a systems engineer as well as a Marketing/ Applications engineer in the semiconductor industry. For the last ten years he has focused upon technical writing for both the high-tech world as well as the world of consumer audio, video, and computers.