AMD unveils chip for portable video players: Consumer Electronics Show

Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) has developed a low-power chip that it thinks will make portable video players more compelling by reducing the time needed to transfer content to the devices. The company is expected to announce the chip at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Monday.

Portable video players with the new Alchemy Au1200 processor will play MPEG files recorded by digital video recorders, eliminating the need for users to change those files to a different format, said Rob Oliver, product marketing manager with AMD's Personal Connectivity Solutions Group (PCSG). AMD has designed a reference platform for manufacturers that includes the chip and media player software, and the company expects devices to emerge in the second quarter of this year, he said.

Handheld video players such as the Portable Media Center (PMC) devices championed by Microsoft Corp. are fairly new. At last year's CES, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates demonstrated a prototype handheld device that could store and play videos, and early versions are starting to show up on the market. Creative Technology Ltd.'s Creative Zen PMC is one of the new products to generate a buzz among consumer electronics fans, even with its US$500 list price.

Most of the video content recorded on digital video recorders or available from online content providers is recorded in file formats such as MPEG4 or DivX. These formats produce images of excellent quality but which are not supported by devices running Microsoft's Windows Mobile media software because of the size of the files. In order to play those files, the Windows Media Player software must convert them into the Windows Media Video (WMV) format, which can take almost as much time as it takes to watch the content. For example, a 30-minute television show would take about 30 minutes to convert from the MPEG2 format to the WMV format.

Devices with AMD's chips can play MPEG2, MPEG4, WMV9 and DivX files without having to run those files through a PC, Oliver said. This means consumers can use their Au1200-based PMCs with digital video recorders and transfer their favorite television shows in far less time than it takes to transcode those shows on a Media Center PC, he said. The devices probably would plug right into the digital video recorders through a USB (universal serial bus) connection.

This will appeal to busy workers looking to download shows they missed the night before to watch on the train or bus during the morning commute, Oliver said. It also makes it possible for consumers without well-honed technology instincts to use PMCs with devices such as TiVo Inc.'s digital video recorders, he said.

There are differing opinions and strategies as to how consumers will want to create the digital media libraries of the future. Some companies believe the PC has the processing power and storage capacity needed to run a home media network, while others think that DVRs such as TiVo devices are easier to use and more adaptable than PCs. No matter how consumers decide to set up their home media networks, devices based on the Au1200 chip will give consumers several different choices, Oliver said.

Some consumers will still want to convert their videos to a smaller file format to maximize storage capacity. This wouldn't be a problem for Au1200-based PMCs, which will support all major video file types, Oliver said.

Users can also use Au1200 PMCs to play DVD-quality movies or television shows on larger televisions, Oliver said. The MPEG and DivX file formats produce higher quality images than the WMV file format, and videos recorded onto PMCs in those formats will play on large screens with no degradation in quality, he said.

The Au1200 chip is based on core technology licensed from MIPS Technologies Inc. It can run at 500MHz, supports DDR2 (double data rate 2) memory and consumes about 500 milliwatts of power during typical usage. Other processors for PMCs use a digital signal processor to handle some of the video encoding and decoding, but AMD built that capability right into the processor in order to save power and improve performance, Oliver said.

AMD, based in Sunnyvale, California, also thinks the chip can be used in media devices such as digital media adapters, set-top boxes, and other video-intensive products. Because a relatively small amount of software is available for the MIPS architecture, AMD will probably not be able to sell this chip as a general-purpose processor for mobile phones and personal digital assistants as other companies have done with chips based on ARM Ltd. cores, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64 in Saratoga, California.

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