10 low-power processors worth watching

2008 has seen an explosion in announcements of what's known as the application processor or media processor. From my perspective, this isn't just a trend driven by the mobile handset space, though these devices can be applied to all sorts of small form factor systems.

What makes this group of processors stand out? All offer a winning combination of low power and high integration. I look at the 15 W and under Thermal Design Power (TDP) point because it enables fanless and battery-powered designs, but the real intrigue with these processors is how they integrate advanced multimedia features - video acceleration, image acceleration, audio, storage, security, and more - along with a high-speed general-purpose CPU core.

21
Figure 1: NVIDIA offers a development platform for its Tegra 600 series processor
(Click graphic to zoom by 2.0x)

At first glance, it might seem like these don't all go together. For instance, the AMCC 460GTx is really a high-speed multiport Ethernet engine with robust hardware encryption and a high-bandwidth memory interface. While some features aren't integrated, adding them via PCI Express would be straightforward.

Other platforms like the Texas Instruments (TI) OMAP3530 are built around the video user experience, focusing on fast processing and several dedicated acceleration units without much extra connectivity outside of USB.

22
Figure 2: The Pandora handheld gaming console uses the TI OMAP3530
(Click graphic to zoom by 2.0x)

As can be seen in Table 1, many of the platforms are built on ARM cores, but it's not the only choice - x86, Power, and SuperH are well represented. And while the Intel Atom and VIA Nano aren't exactly application processors, when combined with their chipsets, they target the same space and certainly fit within the power envelope.

21
Table 1
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.5x)

These 10 low-power processor families made my cutting-edge list from 2008 announcements. The data in the overview table is gleaned from the best information available at press time. Specific feature availability and relative performance varies widely in this group, so be sure to do more homework when considering these and similar devices.