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Intel plugs chip into TVs

Posted: 25 Aug 2008     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:x86-based chip  Canmore  Sodaville  Blu-ray 

Intel Corp.'s first x86-based chip for consumer electronics is looking pretty darn good, and the next one could be hard to beat. The CE 3100, aka Canmore, represents an initiative that speaks to everything from Intel's growing SoC capabilities to its drive towards Internet TV, a concept that has left many pioneers dead by the roadside.

The new chip sports a 3,000 Dhrystone MIPS x86 core, three DDR2 memory channels and a graphics block from Imagination Technologies capable of spitting out 1.3 crore (13 million) polygons a second in a chip dissipating less than 10W. And that's using 90nm process technology and a three-year-old notebook PC core.

The chip comes with a full software stack and reference design for use in Blu-ray players as well as STBs and TVs for both the U.S. Tru2Way cable spec and Europe's DVB standard. Samsung and Toshiba have said they will design systems with Canmore and other giants including Sony have expressed some level of interest.

Next up is Sodaville where Intel swaps in its 2W Atom x86 core and leverages its 45nm process technology. The 2009-generation chip will be part of a family of devices customised for various consumer systems.

"This is a really different chip for the consumer guys," said Steven Wilson, principal analyst for consumer video technologies at ABI Research. "It has a lot of graphics capability and raw performance you don't usually see in traditional CE gear."

Intel has not announced pricing for the chip which will be in production in a few weeks, making it hard to gauge exactly where it might fit. Wilson said it could at the very least be a good platform for high-end Blu-ray drives looking to add fancy user interface features and is well timed for cable operators looking for powerful but low-cost systems to run upcoming interactive services.

"Two or three years down the road this could be a very inexpensive platform covering a range of products," said Wilson.

Beyond the graphics and CPU performance, Intel is touting its x86 as the native silicon for the Web—the next big thing for today's DTVs.

"The TV is at an early stage of delivering connectivity, so we think it is a good time to get this going," said Eric Kim, general manager of Intel's digital home group who announced Canmore at the Intel Developer Forum Wednesday (Aug. 20).

Kim launched the chip along with a software framework developed in partnership with Yahoo! for delivering Internet services on a TV via software widgets. About a dozen companies including U.S. cable TV giant Comcast and set-top maker Motorola have agreed to help define and manage the software environment which Intel calls the Widget Channel.

"After flat panels and high definition, people want to bring the Internet to the TV," said Patrick Barry, VP of connected TV services at Yahoo!

Mark Francisco, a Comcast fellow, said the cable operator sees the Widget Channel as a complement to the Tru2Way services it and other U.S. cable companies are starting to deploy. Tru2Way represents a set of stable applications and services in a managed end-to-end cable environment, while the Widget Channel could be an avenue for short-lived applets customised by users and related to time-sensitive events such as the Beijing Olympics.

"Intel's schedule for the chip and software is critical because the cable operators are trying to roll out Tru2Way services this fall," said Rick Doherty, principal of Envisioneering.

As for Blu-ray, Intel's timing is perfect. If Intel makes gains in this space, it will largely be at the expense of Sigma Designs whose processor is used in most Blu-ray drives today.

With the format war just settled, drive makers are focusing on how to roll out a range of high-end to low cost drives. "Canmore has the potential to grow the population of Blu-ray players greatly because we are still in an early adopter phase," said Andy Parsons, senior VP of advanced product development at Pioneer and marketing chair of the Blu-ray Association.

About 60 lakh (six million) Blu-ray drives have shipped in the U.S. to date, most of them built into Sony Playstation 3 consoles. With the format war settled, there are now some 900 Blu-ray titles, more than double the number just six months ago.

So-called Blu-ray Live players that can link to the Net are just hitting the market with first products out from Samsung and Sony. Blu-ray players range from less than Rs.12,857.54 ($300) to more than Rs.34,286.77 ($800) today.

Canmore is Intel's most complex SoC design to be released to date. The company has been on a path of growing its SoC capabilities for some time, forming last year a corporate SoC enablement group under Gadi Singer, former head of EDA at the chip giant.

Intel has considered it part of its technology strategy to develop common SoC flows and intellectual property libraries. In the wake of the dotcom bust, Intel has divested interests in communications to focus its energies on pushing its x86 core into everything from sub-2W mobile devices to graphics and parallel supercomputers with its upcoming Larrabee chip.

"They are doing exactly the right thing, pushing the x86 everywhere," said Fred Weber, former chief technology officer of archrival Advanced Micro Devices who now heads a memory chip start-up. "This is the sort of thing I have been preaching for years," said Weber on hand for one IDF session.

The Canmore designers got most of the IP blocks and tools they needed from various Intel divisions, including the new SoC group, said Suri Medapati, principal engineer and architect in Intel's digital home group who led the design effort.

Most of the IP on Canmore comes from Intel's chip set and mobile groups. The processor is the 800MHz Dothan core from Centrino notebooks, and the graphics is an Imagination Technologies core supporting OpenGL ES 2.0 also used by the mobile group. The chip set group provided cores for 2.5GHz PCIe, serial ATA 2.0, USB 2.0 and a gigabit Ethernet MAC.

A decode block started with technology acquired about three years ago with Israeli start-up O-Plus. Intel upgraded that core for a previous part and enhanced it again for Canmore. It now handles MPEG2 and H.264 decode for up to two simultaneous 1,080i streams at 60fps. A dual 300MHz audio DSPs came from Tensilica.

Two other blocks were homegrown by the Canmore team—a display processor for scaling and interlacing and a security processor. The latter block handles conditional access keys for cable-TV card security and accelerates AES, 3DES, RSA and other algorithms.The chip also includes three 800MHz DDR2 controllers, six 10bit video DACs and support for HDMI 1.3a.

The Canmore group created its own 90nm EDA chip design flow using a combination of tools it designed itself, ones from other Intel groups and third party tools. It uses some parts of a standard SoC flow created by the corporate team under Singer.

The digital home team has already finished a 45nm design flow for its next-generation parts which are well along in design. It has also helped the corporate SoC group in an effort to define an Intel standard SoC bus yet to be announced.

Intel hired Jim Crammond, a senior designer with a background at set-top companies including Digeo and Moxie to help define the software stack for the chip. The company partnered with VividLogic to port its Tru2Way software to Canmore as part of a set-top reference design.

Blu-ray software comes from Alticast, and DVB software comes from Futarque along with software from other software and silicon partners on the reference designs including Texas Instruments and Microtune.

The software stack is based on a standard Linux 2.6 kernel with Yahoo! providing the widget engine to enable thirds-party applications. Interestingly the middleware supports Microsoft Windows DRM, though Windows has no other role in the platform.

The whole effort came together under Kim, former corporate marketing officer of Samsung, hired three years ago by Intel. Kim clearly leveraged his rolodex of contacts and knowledge of consumer electronics, something Intel badly needed.

The new direction dwarfs the much narrower Viiv platform, a living room PC initiative Intel had struggled to gain traction for over the last several years. But it's still unclear how successful the new move will be.

Kim got senior executives from Comcast, Disney, Sony and Yahoo to join him on stage for the Canmore announcement singing the praises of the move to Internet TV. "Comcast's appearance here is more an expression of openness to new ideas than a real commitment," analyst Doherty said.

Intel has fallen flat in the consumer space before. CEO Paul Otellini made a big splash at the Consumer Electronics Show a few years ago, touting Intel silicon for microdisplays as the next big thing in DTV. About six months later, the company folded the initiative.

Otellini said some time ago Intel would debut Canmore at CES in 2008. Apparently Kim convinced him to wait and roll out the chip at IDF in August, hoping TV makers will roll out Canmore-based systems at CES in 2009.

Many others have tried and failed to deliver Internet TV. The former Apple engineers who formed WebTV Networks were acquired by Microsoft, which still struggles to get traction for its various living room PC concepts. 3Com and partners such as National Semiconductor debuted the Audrey system and Geode processor for consumer Web devices which promptly flopped.

Clearly consumers want Internet TV. Intel researcher Genevieve Bell notes that 43 per cent of people who watched SuperBowl 2008 had simultaneous links to the Web on their home computers, and the latest American Idol episode had 9.75 crore (97.5 million) viewers vote on their favourites via cell phones and PCs.

People want internet TV in part because TV is inherently a social phenomena, said Bell. Now that TV makers are delivering a broad range of 1,080p HDTV sets, adding connectivity is a logical step for vendors as well.

Whether Intel can deliver the platform for Web TV is unclear. Its latest initiative clearly has a strong foothold with solid silicon, software and partners. If the 90nm chip doesn't make a splash at the next CES, the 45nm follow on will likely get some significant attention at CES in 2010.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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