PC chip vendors set sights on DVRs

Digital video recorders (DVRs) and set-top boxes are shaping up as one of the early proving grounds for traditional PC chip companies tentatively wading into the consumer electronics market.

Intel is eyeing a specific product line for DVR chips based on the x86 architecture used by chips found in most of the world's PCs, according to sources. Advanced Micro Devices is openly ambitious about its plans for the x86 architecture with its "x86 Everywhere" strategy, and hopes to build upon its current success in making its Geode chips for IP (Internet protocol) based cable boxes. Upstarts such as Via Technologies and Transmeta are eyeing this market as well with their strengths in low-cost and low-power designs, respectively.

If the long-promised convergence between PCs and consumer electronics does occur, x86 chips in products such as DVRs could pay off for users, according to analysts. One of the hallmarks of the x86 chip companies has been their ability to reduce the price of new technologies as those chips are manufactured in growing volumes. And the software and hardware advantages enabled by the x86 architecture could give DVR users the comfort of a standard platform to use with their PCs if the cost issues can be overcome.

Chip companies are also looking for diversification options outside of the rapidly maturing PC market. DVRs and set-top boxes are popping up in more and more households as manufacturers add features that require increasing amounts of processing power.

AMD has already sold a number of its Geode x86 chips into set-top boxes through Europe and Asia, said Erik Salo, director of marketing for AMD's Personal Connectivity Solutions Group. The Geode GX533 chip runs at around 400MHz and uses less than 1 watt of power. AMD makes another more powerful chip called the NX1500 that runs at 1GHz and uses 9 watts of power under maximum conditions.

Intel sells a development platform tailored for set-top boxes. The Intel 830M4 chipset and development platform were originally sold by the company's mobile division, said Steve Reed, director of marketing for Intel's consumer electronics group. The graphics technology in the chipset and the Ultra Low Power Mobile Celeron chip lend themselves well to the set-top box market, he said.

Intel might be looking into developing specific technology for the DVR market, but the company and its customers are content to reuse notebook technology in DVRs at the present time, he said.

However, the company is sharpening its focus, according to sources. Intel's forthcoming DVR chips will likely carry a separate brand name and come with features tailored specifically for the DVR and set-top box market, sources said. An Intel spokeswoman declined to comment on unannounced products.

In many ways, the x86 architecture presents a natural evolution for DVRs, said Kevin Krewell, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report.

There are many software developers who are familiar with the architecture, having worked on applications for Microsoft's Windows operating system, Krewell said. This means DVR manufacturers can use applications that consumers are already familiar with or even use smaller versions of Microsoft's Windows operating system in their products, he said.

However, using x86 chips in consumer electronics products such as DVRs raises cost concerns, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64.

DVRs and set-top boxes require enough processing power to handle simultaneous video encoding and decoding, as well as reading and writing to a hard drive, Brookwood said. Many DVR manufacturers find they can deliver that level of performance with separate processors for specific tasks that cost less to implement than a single general purpose processor, he said.

Processors based on embedded architectures from companies like Arm or MIPS Technologies cost only US$5 to $10 in large quantities with plenty of processing power when combined with video encoding chips, Brookwood said.

AMD's Geode GX533 chips almost always use a separate co-processor to handle video decoding, but the NX series chips can handle most of the demand of set-top boxes on their own, Salo said. The Geode GX series chips used in set-top boxes from AMD's partners cost around US$30 depending on the clock speed of the processor, an AMD spokesman said. The Geode NX chips cost around US$50.

Intel's 830M4 development platform handles video encoding and decoding right on a single processor, Reed said. The chipset costs US$23.50 in quantities of 1,000 units, and is usually paired with older Ultra Low Voltage Mobile Celeron chips that are no longer featured on Intel's pricing page.

In order to reach the price points demanded by DVR and set-top box companies, Intel and AMD could simply further reduce the functionality of the Celeron and Sempron chips, Krewell said, dubbing Intel's likely contribution the "Cellar Celeron."

Intel and AMD's lower-tier general purpose processors, the Celeron and Sempron chips, are slimmed-down versions of their more expensive siblings. They are made from the same silicon wafers that produce the Pentium 4 and Athlon 64 chips, but are sold with less cache memory, slower clock speeds, and fewer enhancements such as hyperthreading or 64-bit capabilities.

Via is one of the companies that thinks it can position itself as offering an alternative to the more-expensive x86 competitors. The Taipei company's PC processors have not caught on outside of a few select markets in Asia, but they deliver comparable performance to Intel and AMD's low-end chips and are generally less expensive.

Via has also spent time courting the consumer electronics manufacturers in Taiwan and Japan and has the ability to build an entire motherboard for these companies, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group. Companies like Intel and Via that can offer a complete motherboard appeal to DVR manufacturers who want to reduce the time required to build and release a product, he said in a recent report examining multimedia trends.

In order to keep DVRs quiet, many manufacturers insist on building a device that does not require a cooling fan, which seems like a natural fit for Transmeta's low-power x86 chips. Transmeta's Efficeon processors have been used in thin-client devices from Wyse Technology and Hewlett-Packard, and many thin clients are designed to handle a similar level of work as set-top boxes or DVRs, Krewell said.

Eventually, most x86 chip companies want users to purchase entertainment PCs that can handle digital video recording, storage, and a host of other functions. Chip companies always want to sell powerful chips with powerful margins, but some analysts think consumers might find themselves content with a stand-alone DVR based on older x86 technology, rather than an expensive multifunction PC.

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