What’s Up With XScale?

by Reads (3,824)

Today’s handheld enthusiasts are akin to the car buffs of the 1950’s, except they’ve swapped engines and horsepower for microprocessors and megahertz. To most folks, handhelds are simply tools used to make their lives more organized and more productive, just as automobiles are basically tools for transportation. But to enthusiasts they’re much more than that; they’re expressions of the power of technology, and, ultimately, the power of man.

So you can imagine the excitement when word began to filter out in the handheld enthusiast community a year ago that a new "engine" capable of 400MHz–nearly double the existing speed–would soon be finding its way into Pocket PC "muscle cars." Better still, this new engine would use no more fuel than exisiting engines.

It sounded too good to be true: a microprocessor that runs twice as fast as the current model yet uses the same amount of power, and apparently it was.

Recently, the first "muscle car" based on this new engine hit the streets. Sporting Intel’s XScale™ microprocessor running at 400MHz, Toshiba’s e740 Pocket PC was expected to be a speed demon. However, in initial road tests it appears that it’s not much faster than its predecessor, and slower in some areas, and the question handheld enthusiasts are asking is: why?

While there are no definitive answers at this point, there’s certainly a lot of speculation. And industry followers have begun to point fingers at the three main players in the drama: Toshiba, Intel, and Microsoft. [Editor’s Note: The following quotations were taken from the public discussion board at the Pocket PC news site this thread. "After all they shipped the product and surely did some type of testing. [N]o one forced them to sell this product. [Microsoft] never said they were going to deliver an [XS]cale version of the [P]ocket [PC] [OS] to [T]oshiba for their new device." He later wrote, "[B]ut no matter what, [OEM]s are the ones who sell the product, so [I] blame them if they bring a product to market and something like this happens."

However, Frank McPherson, Microsoft Mobile Devices MVP and author of How to Do Everything with Your Pocket PC, wonders whether Toshiba wasn’t somehow left in the dark by Intel. "Toshiba is not the only manufacturer coming out with X-Scale. HP is and Fujitsu is. So surely all three of these companies should have done testing. How can all three of them make such a mistake?"

Software developer Alex Kac agrees. "Device manufacturers did not know until just a couple months ago how badly the XScale performs compared to its expectation. The hardware and software was all ready for it. So you can say the OEMs aren’t happy about this either since it puts them into a pickle. I don’t think Microsoft knew until a couple months ago either. There was NO production quality 400Mhz XScale processor available until a couple months ago to test on. It is my opinion (and a strong one) that Intel really screwed the ARM world over."

Pocket PC User Group Coordinator Charles Pickrell also pins the blame on Intel. "Intel was the exclusive Pocket PC processor manufacturer," wrote Mr. Pickrell. "The fact they didn’t take the rather large V4 ARM codebase into consideration during processor designs and testing shows they are totally clueless. If the Pocket PC 2002 apps, Windows CE.NET apps, Palm V5 apps, and smartphone apps all run more slowly on this thing why would anyone want to buy it at all?"

Microsoft Mobile Devices MVP Chris DeHerrera believes he knows the root of the problem: a slow data bus that works as a bottleneck. "Until Intel adds support for faster memory access these chips will not perform at a full 400 mhz all the time," said Mr. DeHerrera.

So far Microsoft has been the only company that’s provided comment on the issue, although to many folks that only served to throw fuel on the fire. In an interview with the popular Pocket PC news site Pocket PC Thoughts, Microsoft’s Ed Suwanjindar said that "this isn’t a big deal."

"Very simply, we think this is one of those times when the technical reality didn’t measure up to market expectations," said Mr. Suwanjindar, adding that the performance expectations of consumers regarding XScale were "unreasonable."

Whatever the reason, it appears that the wave of XScale-based Pocket PC that have begun to hit the market may not provide the performance that many had expected. Whether this will dramatically impact sales of these new devices has yet to be seen.

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