Electronic Design

Highlights From CES, Part 4: Chip Advances Deliver Stellar Performance at CES

Behind every digital flat panel video screen, inside every set-top box, and driving the content in every personal media player on display at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show are the underlying digital and mixed-signal ICs that turn the entertainment concepts into reality. At this year’s show many companies unveiled their latest silicon offerings that will let video panels display crisper, blur-free images, run portable systems longer while delivering high-quality audio and video, communicate better with higher-speed wireless and wired interfaces, and provide more feature-rich set-top boxes and media gateways.

To compensate for some shortcomings in the response time of large liquid-crystal panels used in HDTV systems, designers at companies like Genesis Microchip and Micronas have developed LCD timing controllers, motion-compensation schemes, and still other chips to improve the quality of the display. The gm7746 LCD timing controller from Genesis, for example, supports panels of any resolution including WUXGA (wide ultra XGA) and full high definition, with any combination of 6-, 8-, or 10-bit inputs or outputs with 10-bit processing end-to-end (Fig. 1).

The chip augments the LCD panel’s performance via its dynamic contrast enhancement (DCE) capability, as well as automatic frame-rate conversion (FRC) and programmability for custom applications. To further enhance the image, 2- and 3-frame overdrive with dual 17-by-17 look-up tables and full-pixel-depth frame buffering deliver the best possible temporal performance from any LCD panel. The DCE feature works with an external programmable voltage reference generator to boost the readability of dark scenes and enhance color saturation. It does this by dynamically controlling the panel’s gamma curve based on current image content. The automatic FRC enables continued operation in television applications when PC inputs exceed the panel’s native resolution.

Other notable Genesis chip releases from the show include a device called the Cortez Plus (FLI8548), a new member of the company’s Phoenix family, the gm5766, and a new controller in the Oak family, the FLI5962. The Cortez Plus incorporates the Faroudja DCDi (directional correlation deinterlacing) Cinema video processing capabilities, a worldwide 3D comb filter, and an HDMI receiver. (Another version of the chip, the FLI8538 comes without the HDMI receiver.) The Cortez Plus can be used as part of a digital TV solution that delivers exceptional video processing thanks to the Faroudja DCDi algorithms that eliminate the jagginess that conventional upconverters introduce to diagonal edges in video. The algorithms identify all the moving edges in a scene and adjust the angles of interpolation at each pixel so that the interpolation always follows the edge instead of crossing it, eliminating the staircasing or jagged-edge artifacts. Also included on the chip is the company’s active color management technology (ACM-3D), which provides color and luminance control over programmable regions.

The latest Phoenix chip takes aim at low-cost mainstream LCD monitors and includes the ACM-3D color management technology with true six-axis color controls, as well as support for the WSXGA (1680 by 1050 pixel) and UXGA (1600 by 1200 pixel) high-resolution monitors. The latest offering also features a triple a-d converter that runs at clock speeds of up to 205 MHz, a DVI (digital video interface) receiver with HDCP support and an 8-bit ITU656 video input port. This chip will allow monitor manufacturers to reduce their overall bill of materials cost as well as offer performance differentiation thanks to the advanced color control technologies.

Capable of supporting both monitors and mid-range LCD TVs, the Oak FLI5962 controller combines support for WUXGA (1920 by 1200 pixel) resolution with the company’s DCDi video processing, active color management (ACM-3D), and adaptive contrast and control (ACC) algorithms. This enables the chip to deliver vibrant and lifelike images on TVs and multifunction monitors while lowering the overall bill of materials.

At the Micronas booth, the semiconductor company demonstrated a new motion compensation chip that eliminates the unpleasant "judder" that appears when film source material, either from broadcast or a playback device, is viewed on a HDTV system.

Without compensation, playing film-based video source material on LCD panels exhibits "judder" (a type of flickering instability of the image). The judder comes from the fact that movies are filmed at 24 frames/s (fps), while video is displayed at 60 Hz on today’s NTSC and ATSC televisions. To boost the frame rate, most HDTV systems just repeat frames to display the video at 60 Hz. Object movement or camera panning causes noticeable judder, and Real Motion compensation technology fills in additional frames that represent the actual motion sequence. This lets the chip deliver a much more enjoyable viewing experience, with resolutions of up to 1920 by 1080 pixels.

The show was also an opportunity for Micronas to show the benefits of its recent acquisition of WISchip. A multi-format IPTV device, the DeCypher 8100 performs real-time streaming media decoding. A system reference design can decode high- and standard-definition video formats, including H.264 (AVC/MPEG-4 part 10), VC-1/WMV9, and MPEG-4/-2/-1, and also supports audio decoding for Dolby Digital, WMA, WMA Pro, AAC, and MPEG audio layers I, II, and III (MP3). The reference design also includes comprehensive connectivity, from wired and wireless networking to analog and digital video and audio outputs, as well as other I/O capabilities. Network I/O includes two USB 2.0 ports, an RJ-45 10/100 wired Ethernet port, and 802.11a/b+g/n wireless Ethernet via the onboard mini-PCI connector.

Security and digital rights management for current and emerging standards are provided through a dedicated security processor and hardware accelerator for cryptographic functions. Working with its software partners, Micronas will offer a flexible, robust software ecosystem that supports both Linux and Windows CE operating systems, various middleware stacks, wired and wireless network protocols, application-level solutions, and a wide variety of digital rights management and access control schemes. The platform is also DLNA compliant, and supports Microsoft UPnP and Apple Rendezvous for zero-configuration network support.

Micronas also presented the company’s DRX3942H, a digital terrestrial ATSC and digital cable-ready QAM receiver chip, the APB7202A nGene, a dual-channel PCI Express multimedia controller, and MSP-M and MAP-M audio processors. The DRX3942H demodulates standard- and high-definition signals and works in conjunction with an OpenCable compliant QAM demodulator. Advanced filtering schemes integrated on the chip recombine some received ghost energy with the main signal, resulting in superior ATSC receiver performance. Significant improvements can be observed using strong and/or dynamic echoes in urban areas, with indoor antennas, and with the so-called "bobbling effect" caused by swaying antennas and other structures.

The APB7202A includes dual-channel video/audio and transport stream capture capabilities and audio output functions. It combines flexible buffer management with the benefits of PCI Express point-to-point protocol to become a key building block for next-generation PC-based personal video recording devices. The MSP-M audio processor supports TVs that receive analog and digital broadcast signals and performs all baseband processing and demodulates/decodes all analog TV audio standards. The MAP-M is optimized for TVs that receive only digital broadcast signals.

The challenge of moving digital video content is taking shape in many forms. One Israeli company, Amimon Ltd., is developing a wireless high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) solution that will eliminate the need for cables to connect the large flat-panel TVs to a video source. The wireless link employs a proprietary wireless video modem technology that jointly optimizes the modulation and video processing to deliver robust video data under varying channel conditions. Operating in the 5 GHz unlicensed band, the link will transfer uncompressed HDTV digital video streams at about 1.5 Gbits/s. The company expects to have silicon ready for sampling in early 2007.

Another vendor, Silicon Image, has developed the industry’s first HDMI transmitter chip designed specifically for the mobile market (Fig. 2). Housed in an 84-ball 6- by 6-mm chip-scale package, the Sil 9020 will allow manufacturers of camcorders and digital cameras to include an HDMI transmit port, enabling consumers to connect the camcorders and cameras directly to an HDMI capable HDTV. The company also provides the Sil 9023 HDMI receiver, which has dual HDMI inputs and full 1080p resolution. Such a chip allows TV manufacturers to cost-effectively add multiple HDMI inputs to their systems. Silicon Image also presented the Sil 8020 video processor, which includes dual video processing paths to enable picture-in-picture and picture-over-picture modes, as well as provide digital audio playback, photo display, and video recording for mass-market HDTVs.

Settop boxes and digital video recording systems are also leveraging new silicon, and LSI Logic and Marvell Semiconductors unveiled new processors that simplify design and lower bill of materials cost. At the LSI Logic booth, the company showed DVD HDTV recorder designs that employ its DoMiNo DMN8633/8683 highly-integrated HDTV recorder processor chips. These chips address the FCC digital tuner mandate by making peripheral TV equipment such as VCRs and DVD recorders to be ATSC-compliant at an affordable cost.

The DMN8633/83 can simultaneously decode and display HDTV content while recording content onto DVDs (Fig. 3). The ‘8683 can time-shift HD content by storing the content on a hard disk drive. Both chips support multiple audio and video encoding and decoding formats, as well as industry-leading DVD recorder features such as DVFX video pre- and post-processing technologies (for the highest-quality video), Direct Digital Dub technology (to simplify the transfer of personal digital content from a camcorder to DVD over FireWire), YesDVD intelligent software (to handle the automatic editing and conversion of home video easy), and fully-integrated support for USB digital cameras and flash memory cards.

Also targeting the settop box (STB) and DVR markets, STMicroelectronics showed its current STi71XX processor family for satellite and cable STBs, as well as Internet protocol STBs, and DVD-HD and combo systems. The chips incorporate the latest multi-standard decoding circuitry and codec technologies for DVD audio and security encryption, so the processor can handle both VC1 (Microsoft’s Windows Media 9 series codec) and the H.264/AVC (advanced video codec), which is also known as MPEG-4, part 10. The STB7100 can simultaneously decode multiple HD streams and output the resultant video to two television sets, or display picture-in-picture on one TV. With a CPU core that is a high-performance 300 MHz ST40, STMicro's 32-bit RISC processor is based on the SuperH architecture and widely used in many digital consumer applications. In large volumes, the STB7100 sells for $29 apiece.

STMicroelectronics also previewed its next-generation STB/DVR platform, the STi7200 series, which can handle two channels of HD video decoding. The chips, which will be sampling in mid 2006, are based on the company’s very-long-instruction-word ST231 and ST40 CPU cores and are implemented on a 65 nm process. Able to support the high-density Blu-Ray optical storage format, the chips will allow systems to handle dual concurrent media streams and work with the latest generation of digital rights management. Complementing the processors is the company’s STB0899 demodulator chip.

Empowering appliances such as a media vault (that can store and manage content for distribution around a home), the Orion processor family unveiled by Marvell Semiconductor Inc. can deliver guaranteed, home-wide Quality of Service (QoS) and true, uninterrupted multi-streaming performance. The Orion processors are highly integrated system-on-chip solutions that run at clock speeds of up to 500 MHz and include PCI, serial ATA storage interfaces, and network interfaces. Using these chips, designers can readily implement media-center boxes or network-attached storage systems that can deliver multiple simultaneous video streams.

New chips for portable media players were also in abundance at the show, with companies like Analog Devices, Magnum Semiconductor, MediaWorks, PortalPlayer, SigmaTel, STMicroelectronics, and Texas Instruments demonstrating DSP and multi-core solutions for audio and video media players.

The Blackfin DSP chip from Analog Devices made its appearance in a multitude of media applications, including Roku Laboratories SoundBridge Internet Radio, digital radio systems from Sonarics, STB systems from Transvideo, portable media player, mobile TV systems, wireless IP telephones, wireless network access points, and many other products.

In addition to entertainment products the Blackfin DSP chip has found a home in diverse products such as the BioLock from Sequiam Corp. Using fingerprint analysis algorithms run on the Blackfin DSP chip, the company developed a deadbolt lock for residential and commercial applications. The lock can hold up to 51 fingerprint patterns, and uses a three-step enrollment procedure to ensure secure entry of the patterns.

The latest SigmaDSP audio processors were also demonstrated in applications like advanced television audio systems and portable audio docking stations for handheld media players. The ADAV400 processor operates at up to 125 MHz and can meet the needs in next-generation TV applications. The chip combines a 56-bit audio processor with a-d and d-a converters that offer better than a 96 dB dynamic range to deliver topnotch audio performance to match the HD video content.

Stand-alone DSP subsystems like Analog Devices’ ADAU1701 and 1702 offer designers a 50- or 25-MHz DSP engine well suited for digital audio applications such as docking stations for portable music players, active speakers, car audio systems, and other audio applications. The chips integrate a full audio subsystem, included a-d and d-a converters, multi-channel digital I/O ports, delay memory, and self-boot, external control and physical push-button and volume control interfaces, eliminating the need for a separate control processor. Prices for these chips start at less than $3 each in lots of 10,000 units.

Also showing off a broad family of media player support chips, SigmaTel displayed its STMP3500 and 3600 series of audio SoCs for MP3 flash- or hard-disk-based music players. The STMP3500 based on a 24-bit DSP engine handles MP3 and WMA decode and includes an on-chip unique read-only ID for digital rights management, and interfaces that support SDRAM, NAND flash, MMC, secure digital, and SmartMedia cards, as well as compact flash and ATAPI/IDE storage devices.

The ‘3600 upgrades its internal processor to an ARM926EJ-S 32-bit RISC CPU, which allowed designers to add MPEG-4 video playback capability and WMA encoding capability. The chip also includes on-the-go USB transfer capability and an integrated very-fast infrared (VFIR) IrDA controller for peer-to-peer file transfers (Fig. 4). Designers also include adaptive voltage control to allow the chip to operate at a higher peak CPU operating frequency than typical voltage control systems. This results in more MIPS/mW in most applications.

Packing multiple RISC cores, a family of chips from Magnum Semiconductor targets digital video recorders and STB applications. The MS9300/9400 perform advanced DVD video codec functions and offers DiVX playback capability. The MS9300 is designed to control a single ATAPI drive, while the ‘9400 includes dual ATAPI storage interfaces as well as the ability to handle full-duplex operation (Fig. 5). The chips include support for super-multi-format drives that handle DVD+/-R/RW/RAM formats, and can play back DivX ultra files. Encryption/decryption accelerators are included for DVD-R/RW/-RAM/ and transcoding for transport and program streams, which allow the chips to handle multiple file formats.

The company also offers its MS8210/8310 DVD processors. These enable designers to implement personal video recorder/player systems that can play and decode DVD video and play Kodak Picture CDs. Based on dual 32-bit RISC processors, the MS8210/8310 provide all the audio and video processing functions for next-generation feature-rich DVD players, DVD receivers, and internet-based DVD applications. Also integrated on the chips are six 10-bit 27-MHz d-a converters and TV encoding capabilities with progressive scan functionality.

Working in conjunction with the DVD processors, the company’s MS269X family of DVD encoders allows systems to capture audio and video in real time and convert the content into MPEG-2 files. The chips include DV25 decoding and DV25 to MPEG-2 transcoding capability. And they pack an IEEE 1394 Firewire input port and a programmable VBI extraction block. There are two versions of the chip—the MS2696 does not include an IDE storage interface, while the MS2697 does, so it can stream data directly to a hard-disk drive.

Another company breaking into the media player market, MediaWorks Integrated Systems Inc, unveiled a novel C-programmable system-on-a-chip architecture it calls MediaFlex. Based on multiple 32-bit RISC cores from Tensilica, the first chip in the family, the MW301 will find homes in personal video recorders, camcorders and many other portable video appliances (Fig. 6). The chip currently supports recording and playback of D1 resolution video at 30 frames/s using a wide range of standards, including MPEG-4, ASP, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, DivX, H.264, and WMV. Supported audio standards include AAC, MP3, WMA, and various digital rights management schemes.

A highly integrated solution, the MW301 includes a high-speed USB 2.0 port (both MAC and PHY), an NTSC/PAL encoder with three d-a converters and Svideo output, a TFT LCD interface with up to VGA resolution support, a CCD/CMOS image sensor interface, and motor control logic for a lens motor. Additional system support on the chip includes an IDE hard-drive interface, a flash memory interface, multiple UARTs, 30 programmable general-purpose I/O lines, I2C for control, and both SPDIF and I2S interfaces for audio I/O.

The scalable processor architecture employed by MediaWorks allows the company to add additional processors if the algorithms require higher levels of computation throughput. Each of the chip’s processors can also be powered down and controlled separately via software, enabling dynamic voltage and frequency control to achieve optimal power and performance. The Tensilica core architecture can be enhanced with custom instructions crafted by MediaWorks to provide more-efficient execution of key algorithms. An internal AMBA bus infrastructure ties the cores to on-chip peripheral support functions such as 16-bit DDR memory interface, DVD encoder/decoder, and other I/O blocks. The company expects the chip to sell for $12 to $16 each in large volumes.

Media players, STBs, and other digital video appliances are also the target of DSP-based chips developed by Texas Instruments. The company’s latest entry into the fray, the DaVinci family of media processors, was highlighted at the show. The first DaVinci chip, the TMS320DM6446, offers up to 1080i MPEG-2 decode and up to 720p MPEG-4 simple-profile encode, while another version, the ‘DM6443, handles video decode only. Such devices will be able to considerably reduce the bill of materials for many media capture and playback devices. (See Processors Offer MPEG-4 Encoding/Decoding, at EDOnline 11646.)

TI also showed off applications of its OMAP1 and OMAP2 families of coprocessors, which add video and graphics capabilities to cell phones and other low-power portable systems. (At the recent 3GSM show in Barcelona, the company released its next-generation coprocessor, the OMAP3, which offers double to triple the performance of the previous devices.) For digital still cameras, TI also presented its digital media processors, the DM270, 310 and 320. Yet another chip is slated for release this month.

After their success with the Apple iPods, PortalPlayer has their eyes on a new target—the PC. The PortalPlayer’s recently introduced Preface technology for personal media displays will allow notebook computer users to have instant access to data, music, and photos without opening the notebook, booting the system, and loading the needed application. With Preface, a second user interface is created in new notebook computers that can seamlessly integrate with a new feature in Microsoft’s Windows Vista called Windows SideShow. The combination would enable notebook computer manufacturers to create a second user interface and set of applications that link the programs and data stored on the main system. The new interface would be an "always on" port into the computer and provide immediate access to critical content such as email, contacts, and other digital media.

To implement such a second access port, the secondary subsystems would have to include an ultra-low-power processor, a second display, and user controls that can be installed in various locations such as the outside of the notebook cover (the other side of the main display). The key elements of the Preface technology will initially be centered on a system-in-package approach based around the company’s PP5024, which integrates all processor, peripheral interfaces, audio, and power management functions.

The PP5024 employs dual ARM7 processor cores in a parallel architecture that maximizes performance while extending battery life in an "always-on" environment (Fig. 7). Highly integrated, the chip supplies the dual CPU cores with 8 kbytes of cache each, 128 kbytes of RAM, a USB 2.0 high-speed port with On-the-go capability, support for high-speed NAND flash and SD/MMC memory cards, an LCD display controller, stereo d-a converters, headphone amplifiers (2 x 40 mW) multiple DC-DC converters and five on-chip regulators, a lithium-ion battery charger, and other resources. When combined with other support functions and PortalPlayer’s power-optimized firmware, the Preface platform can enable hundreds of hours of music playback from a notebook’s full battery, or tens of hours of playback even after the battery runs too low for the notebook to operate.

Microsoft is also encouraging software developers to create new applets, called gadgets, for Windows SideShow, which add new information lookup functionality. These gadgets will give users the ability to personalize the second interface by letting them choose which functions and capabilities to include. (For more information on gadgets, go to www.microsoftgadgets.com). A Preface reference design including the PP5024 system-in-package and firmware development kit is currently available. Reference boards sell for $2250, while the PP5024 in lots of 10,000 units/month sells for $12 each.

These developments are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the underlying innovations that make the array of outstanding system products unveiled at CES possible. There were still many additional chips demonstrated by companies offering wireless UWB solutions for cable replacement and wireless A/V connectivity applications. Such companies include Alereon, Staccato Communications, Texas Instruments, TZero Technologies, Wisair, and many others, who participated in the WiMedia Techzone at the conference.

For other applications such as mobile digital television systems, chips from Siano Mobile Silicon, DibCom, and others demonstrated solutions for cramming TV reception into cell phones and hand-held media players. Techwell showed solutions for digital flat-panel monitors that include digital video decoding to support dual-use monitors (connect to computers and display TV video).

Though not a multimedia chip, the Akustica Inc. MEMS-based microphone can be used in array systems for noise cancellation and beam-steering applications in laptops and other systems with audio inputs. A surface-mountable silicon microphone, the AKU2000 integrates an acoustic transducer, analog preamplifier, and a fourth-order sigma-delta modulator on a single chip. The microphone delivers a pulse-density modulated (PDM) digital data stream that can be transferred to downstream systems with minimal noise or signal loss, and eliminates the need for shielded cables. This provides designers with a lot of flexibility regarding microphone positioning, as the output is immune to RF and EM interference. In its power-down mode, the microphone consumes just 75 microamps, suiting it for many portable applications.

Last, but not least, Zensys and its partners showed simple home-control approaches using the company’s Z-Wave wireless mesh networking technology. The company released its second-generation chip, the ZW0201, which provides a full wireless solution on a single chip. Each chip includes an integrated RF transceiver, an 8051 microcontroller, flash non-volatile storage, SRAM for temporary storage, and a range of peripherals for control. With the chip, many home-control companies can implement low-cost remotely controlled lighting, thermostats, garage door openers, appliance control devices, shade and blind controllers, access control devices, and home-entertainment control products. Some partners include Leviton (with its Vizia RF home control modules), ControlThink (with its Z-Wave PC software development and compliance test tools), Intermatic (with a broad range of home-control devices), Monster Cable (with its consumer electronics accessories), Universal Electronics (for home-theater control), and many others.

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