AMD buys Nat Semi Geode chip

x86 for PDAs, anyone?

AMD is buying National Semiconductor's Geode x86-compatible microprocessor and system-on-a-chip platform.

NatSemi began hawking Geode back in February, primarily as a cost-cutting measure, though in part, we suspect, because the company's grand dreams of a future where we all use information appliances rather than PCs failed to materialise.

On that back of that plan, the company shut down its PC processor subsidiary Cyrix in 1999.

Today, the Geode family is lead by the GX2 chip, a 32-bit x86 CPU with MMX and 3DNow! support, an integrated 1600 x 1200 LCD controller, 64-bit DDR SDRAM controller, a maximum clock speed of 366MHz and a power draw of under 1W.

NatSemi also offered an array of support chips, including media processors, South Bridges and 'information appliance on a chip' packages.

Financial terms of the sale, which is expected to be completed by the end of August, were not disclosed.

Geode and its companion chips will be used to "enhance" the AMD Personal Connectivity Solutions (PCS) group's product portfolio. Around 132 Nat Semi staff will become PCS employees.

The deal provides AMD with the basis for a line of x86-based processors for PDAs, thin clients and the like. Of course, the assumption there is that the market wants x86-based processors for those roles, and Nat Semi's lack of success with the platform suggests they don't.

x86 compatibility is arguably far less of a pre-requisite outside the Windows world, which is why ARM has managed to do so well for itself. Is AMD seeking an alternative to ARM-based PDA-oriented chips like Intel's XScale? It seems unlikely, given just how successful the ARM architecture is, and AMD's own interest in pushing its MIPS-based Alchemy embedded processors in that direction - as witnessed by its promotion of a Linux-based PDA this week based on the Alchemy Au1100.

The Alchemy line of SoCs feature built on LCD controllers, on-board memory controllers and have been designed for low-power systems. Alchemy too forms part of the PCS portfolio. Indeed, PCS was formed when AMD acquired Alchemy Semiconductor.

But, yes, broadening the use of the antiquated x86 ISA is what this is all about. The deal will create "new opportunities for AMD to extend the x86 architecture into new low power and high performance applications as the market demands, " said Billy Edwards, PCS' VP and general manager, in a statement. It can help AMD provide "a single industry-standard architecture that can be optimized for all form factors", he added.

Geode has found a niche powering Windows Smart Display terminals, providing some synergy with AMD's WLAN chip activities. But is there enough business there to make an acquisition worthwhile? AMD must think so. ®

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