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Loongson RISC Netbook and SoC

Loongson RISC Netbook and SoC

Loongson is a general purpose RISC processor. It is a 64-bit MIPS compatible processor, which is patented by MIPS Technologies. The silicon is designed by ICT/CAS China and manufactured by ST Microelectronics. The online retail price for Loongson-2F chip is about USD30~40, which is available from the Lemote's online shop. Of course, you can order it in the name of STLS2F from ST as well.

Loongson-2F, the latest version operates at 1.2 to 1.5GHz and only consumes 5 watts. Additionally, Loongson-2F also supports DDR2 and USB2.0. As a RISC processor, Loongson processor is struggling on its way to the market for a long time. As we know, the processor market is highly competitive. ARM has been a de facto standard RISC processor IP in mobile terminals and embedded SoC. MIPS is not the market leader. It is mainly used in digital video and telecommunication segments like STB, HDTV, IPTV, DSL modem, laser print and video game consoles (Sony PS/PSP). MIPS processors are usually available in IP and embedded SoC, you can find some old types available for legacy SGI workstation, Windows CE PPC and HPC. AMD acquired Alchemy MIPS processor in PMP and HDTV, and finally it got rid of this business line before long. Sometimes, I wonder why AMD bought Alchemy at the very beginning. 

Although it is hard to find the market opportunities for MIPS. ICT offers a series of open source MIPS based designs for NAS, Linux desktop PC, thin client terminal and others with their own Loongson processor family. Recently, they start to promote the MIPS Netbook to the consumer market. The price is comparable to the ATOM/Nano based Netbook, many local Linux developers enjoy it very much. Because it is very hard to buy a high speed MIPS board with low price. Can you find a 300USD evaluation board for 1.5GHz MIPS processor? The system has been installed with Debian MIPS distribution and native GCC for MIPS. Compare to an ordinary x86 Netbook, the user experience is same. MIPS still have major OS support from Windows CE and Linux. Most of the popular software components are available on these platforms. Netbook and MID are great chances for MIPS to return to the desktop/mobile computing market. However, I can name many limitations for MIPS: you can not play Real Video and QuickTime, you can not run WINE, you can not use commercial DLLs for x86 and Windows, and you may face to the driver issues. The MIPS Netbook only fits the requirements for the highly experienced communities or the people who have no PC experiences at all (like my parents) and just want to check their emails or browsing. The MIPS device is good for them because it is totally virus-free.

I don't want to promote MIPS IP or Loongson Netbook here. I also don't think MIPS Netbook can win the market. Non-x86 structure can not beat x86 in Netbook, because people consider Netbook a low-cost laptop PC. However MIPS should focus its advantage on digital video segments, including media adapter, PMP and PND. And so we, as the engineers, let us check the specification and find out its opportunities.

- MIPS-III 64 bit superscalar architecture
- 900 MHz clock frequency
- Single/double precision floating point units
- New streaming multimedia instruction set support (SIMD)
- 64 KB I-cache, 64KB D-cache, on-chip 512 KB unified L2 cache
- On chip DDR2 667 and PCI-X controller
- 4W@900MHz power consumption:
- Voltage/frequency scaling
- Standby mode support
- L2 cache disable/enable option
- 90 nm process technology
- JTAG interface

Apparently, this chip has advantage on 64-bit performance, FPU, SIMD over mainstream ARM products. Meanwhile it has much lower power consumption over x86 processor. It requires 3rd party north/south bridges (VIA) to complete the system design. A Chinese company HiSand also developed a Loongson-1 based SoC for Internet Radio, digital photo frame and other consumer products. Its HS3210 has integrated a lot of peripherals on-chip with a 266MHz MIPS core. It is the first step of the right direction. Only if its MIPS SoC wins the market, the Loongson can live on. I have no doubt about the market capacity of consumer electronics, if HS3210 has good quality with low price as they claimed, it is make sense to buy a Loongson computer/Netbook for development purpose with the native toolchains. Loongson also offers a simulator so you can evaluate the system. 

Reference

MIPS architecture - Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MIPS_architecture

Loongson - Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loongson

Loongson Official Site, in Chinese
http://www.loongson.cn/

A French company EMTEC released its Loongson based subnotebook under the brand name Gdium. The Mandriva G Linux is pre-installed in a USB key. It is available in Europe, China and US.
http://www.gdium.com/

The Chinese manufacturer Lemote offers new 8.9" Netbook, running Debian GUN/Linux, available in Europe at the Dutch company Tekmote Electronics. 
http://www.lemote.com/english/index.html

Datasheet of 2F from ST Electronics
Datasheet ST
http://www.st.com/stonline/products/literature/ds/14793/stls2f02.pdf

HiSand IC Design Inc,.
http://www.hisand.cn/

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