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January 18, 2011

Bye-bye PXA processors? Probably not just yet.

There was a time, around the year 2000, when Microsoft essentially decreed that Pocket PCs were to run Intel XScale processors. That was a big change, and a rude awakening for some of the Windows CE hardware vendors who had been promised that Windows CE was going to be a multi processor architecture platform. But Intel XScale it was, and the Intel PXA became the de-facto standard processor for virtually all vertical market handhelds for a decade.

So product specs for all those handhelds of that era weren't very exciting. They either had an Intel PXA255 or a PXA270 processor, with slight variations in clock speed. Considering the demise of the once high-flying PDA industry in favor of telco-controlled smartphones, those vertical market handhelds were a rather successful niche, with the occasional massive sale to parcel carriers, field service organizations, postal services, and so on. However, despite the virtual monopoly of the PXA processors, those industrial handhelds were not a lucrative enough market for Intel to remain interested. So in 2006, Intel sold the PXA business to Marvell for a modest US$600 million.

Marvell, a silicone solutions company intent on cracking the emerging smartphone market, initially scrambled to find someone to make the chips for them. They then quickly launched the PXA3xx series of application processors, including the high end 806MHz PXA320. When we tested the first handheld with the new PXA320 chip (the TDS Nomad), we were blown away by its speed and responsiveness.

However, Marvell apparently did not have the reach and marketing power of Intel. Sure, Marvell PXA270 and even the older PXA255 chips continued to power numerous handhelds, but the powerful new PXA3xx chips had trouble gaining traction. There was a new design win here and there, but we also started seeing defections. And those who stayed with Marvell often chose the older PXA270 chip over the newer and more powerful PXA310 or 320.

Of recent releases, Motorola stayed with Marvell for their new MC75A0 (PXA320) and MC55A0 (PXA320), but used a Qualcomm MSM processor for their ES400 enterprise digital assistant. Psion Teklogix chose a Texas Instruments OMAP3 processor for their Omnii XT10, GD-Itronix an ARM Cortex-A8 for their GD300, Datalogic did stay with Marvel for their new Elf (PXA310) and Falcon X3 (PXA310) handhelds but combined them with ARM Cortex co-processors. DAP Technologies stayed with Marvell with their new M2000 (PXA270) and M4000 (PXA270)Series. Getac stayed with Marvell for their PS236 (PXA310) handheld, but not their PS535F that uses a Samsung S3C2450. And then came the most recent blow for Marvell when Intermec based its new line of likely rather high-volume 70 Series handhelds on the TI OMAP 3530.

The situation doesn't appear to be critical for Marvell yet, as the majority of handhelds out there continue to run on its processors, and there have been some good recent design wins for the PXA310 and PXA320. But the PXA3xx series is now also already over four years old, an eternity in processor terms. It's also not quite clear how Marvell's ARMADA family of application processors relates to the PXA chips. Marvell recently explained to me how ARMADA processors target various markets ranging from consumer display devices like eReaders and tablets to high-end HD TVs, but the name AMADA never appears in vertical market handhelds, and while the PXA 3xx processors are listed with the ARMADA chips, there also seems to be an ARMADA 300 Series with 300/310 chips. Confusing? I'd say so.

A little wordplay anecdote here: two or three years ago, Marvell introduced its own "Shiva" CPU technology and announced it'd be used in upcoming SoC (system-on-chip) products. The PXA processors were then considered part of the Shiva family. So where's the word play? Well, turns out a year before, the Marvel Comix had released a comic book with armored Shiva robots that could not be defeated the same way twice. Apparently Marvel Shiva and Marvell Shiva was too close for comfort, and so the Shiva name is gone from Marvell.

Anyway, no, I don't think the Marvell PXA chips are going away anytime soon, but unless Marvell has some plans up its sleeves that were not aware of, they also don't seem to be going anywhere. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much where vertical market handhelds are in general, sort of in a holding patterns until it becomes clear whether Microsoft can be counted on to provide a true next generation mobile operating platform, or not. And whether the fundamental changes in user interface expectation brought upon by the iPhone/iPad and Android smartphones will lead to pressure for similar functionality and ease-of-use in vertical market devices, or not.

Posted by conradb212 at January 18, 2011 10:25 PM