NEC joins 64-bit club

Tokyo-based NEC Corp. is joining the lengthening list of chip manufactures who are entering the 64-bit sweepstakes, albeit with an offering targeted more towards the mobile and handheld market.

The new 64-bit RISC chip, the VR4131, is set to be released in Q3 of this year. Designed to run at 200MHz and deliver 1,545 MIPS (million instructions per second), NEC has targeted the mobile market, where battery life and power usage is of paramount importance. The company also envisions the use of the VR4131 in network interface cards and wireless LANs.

According to Arnold Estep, senior marketing manager of VR microprocessors with NEC in Santa Clara, Calif., the processor’s power saving is not just limited to those items not connected to a constant electrical supply, such as mobile phones and PDAs. According to NEC, using the VR4131 in network interface cards will help reduce overall power usage and also cut thermal output, a bane for tight storage cabinets without good air flow to dissipate heat.

He said some of NEC’s customers are looking at the VR4131 to solve this specific problem.

recucing battery drain

Processors capable of a variety of low power and standby modes are likely to interest the creators of mobile technology.

“On many of these devices, they are idle 95 per cent of the time, waiting for some input to send them out on a task,” Estep said.

He added that during standby mode the VR4131 uses only 35 milliwatts. During the hibernation mode, in which the unit essentially shuts down the power to the device, it can wake up, stabilize and start running in two or three mili-seconds. The advantage of this, vs. shutting the device off completely, is reduced battery drainage. Frequently turning a device on and off can quickly drain batteries.

The processor has two integer pipelines, so it can execute instructions in parallel, Estep said. It also has a 32-bit 33MHz integrated PCI bus, 100 MHz SDRAM, serial ports and an IR port. The VR4131 is manufactured using a 0.13 micron process. You can also program the VR4131 to run at different clock speeds to help reduce battery drain, Estep added.

going 64 bit

Though 32-bit technology is sufficient for the majority of tasks at hand, there is an industry-wide move toward 64 bit as a means of addressing today the requirements of tomorrow.

“Computer architecture, of which RISC processors are one type, tend to be very long lived, so you don’t want to artificially handicap yourself,” said Carl Howe, principal analyst with Forrester in Cambridge, Mass. “My guess is that [NEC] did 64 bit because, in some sense, there is almost no point in doing 32 bit any more,” he said.

“That was pretty much NEC’s plan from the very beginning when we designed the 4100 family, five, six years ago,” Estep explained, confirming Howe’s suspicions. “It runs MIPS 32 just fine but if you need 64 you have it,” he added.

John Enck, research director with the Gartner Group in Loveland, Colo., said with the wireless world getting more and more complex, it is not really surprising to see the architectures extended to the 64-bit level.

“Do we need it today? Probably not,” he said. “[But] we are talking about a very specialized device here.”

“I sort of view the move to 64 bit on all fronts as a natural progression of technology,” he explained.

Since companies are going to have to move up to 64 bit there is no time like the present. “The difference between 32 and 64 in silicon today is very minimal in terms of cost; to make it 32 doesn’t save you much,” Estep said.

The VR4131 ( will ship in Q3 of this year and will have a suggested price of US$25 when purchased in quantities of 10,000.

NEC in Tokyo can be reached at 81-3-3454-1111.