Electronic Design

The Processor Wars

The long-heralded convergence of computing, communications, and entertainment is here, instigating a three-way battle for Internet device designs.

Just when you thought all was quiet on the personal computer (PC) front, with entrenched competitors grimly holding onto their market share, a new battle has broken out. Due to the rise of the mobile Internet device (MID), traditional computer processors face new competition from the camps of cell-phone and set-top box vendors. The result is a confusing call to arms as processor vendors recruit developers to occupy territory in what is still a nebulous market.

“A paradigm shift has started in the computing industry,” says Mike Bryars, manager of the infotainment, multimedia, and telematics operations at Freescale Semiconductor. “We are starting to realize that other types of devices can connect to the Internet that are better than a PC. We no longer need an open platform. Developers have to come at this from the embedded space, designing these devices to provide specific functions.”

This industry shift is a result of two factors: the ascension of the Internet and technology convergence between the computing, communications, and consumer sectors. The Internet’s meteoric rise in consumption created a market opportunity for devices that can provide users with essential Internet access at low cost. Essential access, most vendors agree, includes unrestricted Web browsing, e-mail and social networking, and multimedia playback.

Other desirable functions might be included in an Internet access device, such as image and video capture, basic office productivity, and personal navigation. But the key requirement is providing high-quality interactions with the Internet and the World Wide Web. Device functionality is built in, although users can also download and run browser plug-in applications. As a result, designs are free from constraints to a specific hardware architecture or to a specific operating system.

As this market opportunity begins to unfold, this design freedom along with technology advances have given processors from the communications, consumer, and computing industries the potential to serve the market. The performance of application processors in cell phones, such as those from ARM, Freescale, and Texas Instruments, has improved to the point where they can now handle the media and graphics demands of the Internet experience.

Similarly, the media players and set-top boxes of the consumer industry with processors from MIPS, Nvidia, and others have expanded their networking and display capabilities to match the Internet’s demands. PC processors from vendors such as AMC, Intel, and Via Technologies can also address the market, but they have a different challenge to solve.

“The applications requirements in this space—browser, e-mail, and media playback—are less demanding than full desktop computing,” says Bob Morris, director of mobile computing at ARM, “and the majority of what Internet users want can be done with other processors. PC processor technology has overrun what is needed in this space and we are coming up from underneath.”

The challenge for personal-computing processor vendors, then, is to scale back their PC offerings and address the low power and cost requirements of the emerging Internet access market. Thus, a three-way battle is brewing for capturing design wins in the Internet access device market. Exactly what those designs look like is still unclear, though.

Processor vendors apply a wide variety of terms to refer to the devices in this market (Fig. 1). Names such as “netbook,” MID, and ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) are common and sometimes used interchangeably. The one thing vendors agree on is that these devices aren’t general-purpose PCs. “The PC was a Swiss Army knife,” says Bill Henry, general manager of the mobile Internet device business unit at Nvidia. “These devices are targeted.”

Despite the lack of consensus in the industry, some clarity is emerging. Processor vendors appear to be targeting designs that roughly separate out into three general classes with somewhat different form factors. At one extreme is the low-cost PC, also referred to as a “netbook,” or a “nettop” computer. These designs target computer users with limited needs or first-time computer users who require a starter device.

Low-cost PC designs retain some of the look and feel of a PC, but don’t offer extensive multitasking capability or unrestricted programmability. Instead, these devices have their basic functionality built in and load any additional applications from the network through the browser.

They primarily support viewing and playback of files rather than creation. Also, they have 8- to 10-in. diagonal displays and reduced keyboards. Solid-state mass storage is used rather than hard drives. And while they’re portable, these devices often target extended desktop use so that battery life isn’t a critical concern. Low cost is the key characteristic, with retail price targets typically $300 to $400.

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The other extreme is an Internet access device that fits into a pocket, otherwise known as MIDs or pocket MIDs. These devices, primarily oriented toward battery-powered and handheld operation, are almost exclusively used for viewing Internet content. Screen sizes range from 4 to 6 in. diagonal, and keyboards (if present) typically support thumb typing. Advanced smart phones also fall into this category.

Between these extremes, however, lies a vast range of possibilities along with much of the confusion that reigns in the Internet access device market. Vendors apply terms like netbook and MID to describe devices in this middle ground as well, especially where a design borders the extremes in size and functionality. Yet this is also where much of the market opportunity lies for developers.

Devices can have clamshell or tablet form factors, come in a range of sizes, incorporate additional features such as cell phones and navigation systems, and add cameras, video P conferencing, and television playback features. As long as they provide the essential Internet access functions, they can compete in this market.

Multiple processor offerings eMerge
Coupled with the array of design possibilities in this market comes an extensive range of processors from which developers can choose. Selecting a processor requires careful matching of processor characteristics to four key system characteristics determined by the device’s intended use model.

The first key characteristic is size and its related parameter, cost. Designs for the Internet access device market must be low in cost and compact enough to match the intended use model. Both cost and size must be evaluated at the system level, not just for the CPU, which argues in favor of a highly integrated chip design that includes both processor and system interfaces (Fig. 2).

Low power is a second key characteristic. As with cost and size, this must be evaluated at a system basis—processor power alone may not be the whole story if the architecture requires a support chip set, such as the north and south bridges in a typical PC. Power should also be evaluated in light of the device’s expected use model, which may contain opportunities to reduce overall system power with the right architecture.

A design that has a CPU to handle the network interface and a separate graphics processor to handle the display might be able to manage power differently when downloading a Web page and while the user is viewing the page. According to ARM’s Bob Morris, downloading is quick while the typical page viewing lasts nearly 50 seconds, providing a significant opportunity to save power by putting the CPU to sleep during viewing and running just the graphics processor.

The third key characteristic is processor performance as it relates to the user’s Internet viewing experience. Unlike traditional PCs, where more processor power is always better, an Internet access device has an upper limit to the benefits of CPU performance. “It’s not really the processor performance, it is the bandwidth that defines the Internet experience,” notes Nvidia’s Henry.

“These devices are driven by their connectivity,” says Jack Browne, vice president of marketing at MIPS. “Extra performance can’t compensate for poor access.” The system architecture must provide high-quality Web browsing and be able to handle streaming media such as high-definition video. But once those needs are met, surplus processor performance simply drains power while adding little value.

A final characteristic to consider is the device’s need for data security. “As these devices become more personal and smaller,” says Timothy J. Brown, Via Technology’s International Marketing Manager, “they run a greater risk of getting lost or being left behind. As a result, security is a massive need to consider.” As with graphics, a design could handle security with a separate processor to lower CPU demand and system power.

Processor Characteristics Vary
Processor vendors are now releasing devices that leverage their architectures to address these key characteristics. Each vendor takes a slightly different approach, however, making side-by-side comparisons meaningless without the context of specific design requirements. Examining the range of offerings available, though, can help developers solidify their system architecture choices and usage model target.

For developers seeking a more PC-like design, Via Technology offers the Via Nano processor. The Nano family provides x86 compatibility, so it can run the familiar Windows environment and face no compatibility issues with Internet content. The Nano also incorporates a built-in security engine.

Coming from the ARM camp is a system-on-a-chip (SoC) architecture that integrates the CPU core with accelerators and coprocessors along with all of the system I/O interfaces. One of the key benefits of this integration is that the CPU and coprocessors can all share system memory rather than needing dedicated space. This saves both on system cost and board area. The MIPS camp takes a similar SoC approach, offering highly integrated chip designs (Fig. 3).

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One example of an ARM-based SoC is Texas Instruments’ OMAP3. It combines a Cortex A8 ARM processor with separate TI DSPs for audio and video as well as dedicated processors to handle graphics and security. The memory interface supports package-on-package construction, squeezing the full processor and memory subsystem into 12- by 12-mm board area. Nvidia’s Tegra is another offering from the ARM camp. The single chip combines an ARM 11 CPU core with graphics, imaging, and video coprocessors, I/O peripherals, and a security engine.

Freescale Semiconductor also takes the SoC approach with its MobileGT 5121e design, but the company seeks to cover a broader market than just Internet access devices. The MobileGT family includes several industrial bus interfaces along with the peripheral interfaces common to most computing systems (Fig. 4).

This allows the processor be at home in industrial, consumer, and other embedded system designs, helping ensure stability in the architecture and availability by decoupling the processor’s fate from the PC device market’s “all-or-nothing” demand characteristics. It also positions the processor to serve the needs of specialty Internet access devices that target business applications, such as inventory control, rather than personal consumer connectivity.

Intel takes a three-pronged approach to this marketplace, creating variations of its Atom core architecture that address different design tradeoffs. According to Pankaj Kedia, director of Atom’s ecosystem program, “one size does not fit all.” Intel has created Atom families that offer various levels of integration, performance, and power demands to fit different use models. These Atom families, Kedia noted, aren’t just cut-down PC processors, but were designed specifically for the Internet access market.

The Atom 230 series targets what Intel calls the “nettop” computer, portable but intended for desktop operation. This gives the design access to line power, supporting the 1.6-GHz clocks and the 4-W demand of 230-series processors and their support chip set. In exchange for the higher power, these processors add the 64-bit operation, virtualization, and multitasking features of a notebook PC. They aren’t intended to power low-end PCs, though. Rather, they run fixed-function Internet connectivity and office productivity devices. The Atom 230 series thus targets one extreme of the MID landscape.

Intel homes in on the other design extreme with its Z500 series, code-named Silverthorne. These devices integrate the support chipset to reduce a design’s processing core size to a 22- by 22-mm package. They step down the clock frequency to 800 MHz to help reduce power demands to under 220 mW average. The Z-series also integrates a graphics processor to handle 780p encoding and 1080p decoding, offloading the core CPU to help control power consumption.

For the vast middle ground of MID use cases, Intel offers the Atom N270 series. Like the 230 series, the processor utilizes a separate support chip to bridge to memory and system peripherals, but the processor does not incorporate quite as many performance features as the 230.

However, it does incorporate a graphics processor on-chip. As a result, an Internet access device design based on the N270 would require about 2.5 W to power the design’s core processing functions. This leaves the N270 more suited to the netbook end of the middle ground.

All of the processors in the Atom families retain their PC heritage by offering x86 compatibility. Like the Via Nano, the Atom processors thus seek to avoid any possible incompatibility in their Web browsing operation.

Via’s Browne points out that browser plug-ins for Internet content such as Flash programs and some streaming media primarily target the x86 architecture and may not perform well or even be available for other processor architectures.

Freescale’s Bryars disagrees, however, noting that “Flash and other plug-ins are de facto standards that change every day and all processor architectures continually need new versions.” At best, Bryars adds, x86 compatibility gives developers only a short-term advantage due to the funding and market penetration currently enjoyed by the architecture.

Freescale and other non-PC processor vendors are banking on the fact that the Internet-centric operation of devices in this emerging market will eliminate any requirement for PC compatibility, leaving the market up for grabs.

Several such designs have already emerged, including the Freescale- based CherryPal and LimePC (Fig. 5). New entries based on various processors are appearing with greater frequency, the latest carrying the Google brand.

While the first entries have arrived, the opportunity still remains for developers to join in. Users will need time to become accustomed to the new interfaces and use models that sidestep their familiar PC environment, but when they do they will be primed to adopt whatever design best fits their needs.

Because we are all different, those needs vary, creating a host of potential market niches. And once started, the battle for users of Internet access devices will undoubtedly spill into other, currently unforeseen, market opportunities.

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