Chips Power Killer Apps for Handhelds

Developers meeting need for faster, slimmer, smarter mobile devices.

Todays high-end handheld devices pack 400MHz processors and 64MB of RAM—numbers that fall scarcely short of what youd expect from a typical desktop system. The big difference, however, is that users expect much more than swelling speeds and feeds from mobile devices.

With a mandate to perform un-plugged and in a pocketable form factor, smart phones and handheld computers have to do their business under power, size and peripheral expansion limitations that desktops dont have. As a result, the most interesting advances in handheld device processors involve not only working faster but also slimmer and smarter.

So while Intel Corp.s desktop processor product managers now boast Pentium 4 chips dialed up to 2.8GHz, their colleagues in the embedded space must define success differently. The smart-phone-oriented PXA261 and PXA262 processors that Intel launched at the Intel Developer Forum in Taipei, Taiwan, earlier this month, for example, deliver space and power savings by combining an XScale processor core, a digital signal processor and flash memory on a single, 200MHz-to-300MHz chip.

However, as Samsung Electronics Corp.s talk of a 1.2GHz ARM-based processor at this months Microprocessor Forum demonstrates, embedded chip vendors havent stopped plotting how to provide mobile devices with more horsepower. And we count on software developers—handheld-oriented or otherwise—to find uses for it.

One such application for increased processor power is voice recognition, for command and control functions as well as for speech-to-text dictation.

eWeek Labs has tested IBMs ViaVoice Mobility Suite with a Hewlett-Packard Co. Compaq iPaq 3800-series device, and the combo performed too sluggishly for regular use.

However, while the power advantages of desktop systems make them a more viable platform for speech than current mobile devices, the fact that desktop users have a keyboard available to them relegates speech to second- class input-method status. For mobile devices, this is not the case. Once we arrive at a combination of hardware and software suitable to the task, speech could become a killer application for mobile computing.

As handheld computers continue to accrue more power and functionality, they will also gain greater independence from the desktop systems to which theyre now tethered.

Toshiba Corp. offers a hardware add-on for its Pocket PC e740 that provides VGA and Universal Serial Bus ports, for presenting device content on an external display and for hooking up an external keyboard, respectively.

Indeed, one could argue that handheld computers have the potential to serve as a users primary computing platform.

Client software is available for connecting Pocket PC-based devices to Citrix Systems Inc. ICA servers and the Virtual Network Computing remote display system from AT&T Laboratories Cambridge. Whats more, Microsoft Corp.s Pocket PC 2002 now ships with a Terminal Services client.

Teamed with external input and display peripherals while docked at a desktop station, future systems could take advantage of full-size displays and input devices while retaining a core set of memory, storage and processing in a pocketable form factor.

Technical Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at

Related Stories:

  • CPU Power Push
  • Intel Banks on Banias Mobile Chips
  • Data Bandwidth: Memory Should Take Pride of Place