Electronic Design

Digital ICs> DSP: Performance Increases As Costs Decrease

The DSP market made a strong recovery in 2003 due in large part to cell-phone handsets. Sales revenues grew 27% in 2003 to $6.2 billion, and the growth rate will likely be in the same range in 2004. The unit growth rates are even higher—55% and 33%, respectively, for 2003 and 2004. Thus, chip vendors are delivering more DSP capability at lower prices.

The majority of DSPs are very low-cost, typically below $6. There are also very high-performance products, such as Texas Instruments' C6000 family or the Analog Devices TigerSharc chips, which run 10 to 100 times more. These DSPs represent a very small niche of the overall DSP market—only about 1%. However, these are high-performance architectures with increasing levels of parallelism. The high-end DSPs address voice and speech recognition, video and image processing, and high-end graphics. These chips also power cell-phone basestations, high-end color printers, medical imaging, and still other applications. The technology being developed for the high end, though, is starting to migrate into the mass market.

Wireless communications, in particular cell-phone handsets, will continue to be the market driver for DSPs in 2004. This market accounts for over 68% of DSP sales. Texas Instruments has been the DSP market leader since the inception of DSP and is likely to remain the leader in 2004. So, TI will set the tone for the technology trends in the coming year. However, there will certainly be other players nipping at TI's heels.

The demand for cell phones and new features results in a more competitive environment for DSP vendors. In 2004, we will see the transition to 3G technology, smart phones and PDAs with cell-phone capability. This is the long-time vision of convergence finally coming to pass. By offering new and improved features, cell-phone manufacturers hope to see turnover, and service providers expect to garner more revenues.

To deliver on this performance, most DSP cores used in the cell-phone market are now coupled with an ARM CPU core. This is found both in the digital baseband chip set and in an accompanying product, the application media processor. Currently, the digital baseband uses an ARM7 core with a DSP core to handle communications. The application media processor provides computing capability for advanced features such as image processing, video, and so forth. This processor usually features an ARM9 core with a DSP core or some DSP functionality.

TI has made a huge push with its OMAP line, which is the focus of the company's roadmap. OMAP integrates the baseband processor (TI's C55x core) and the application processor (ARM925 core), along with numerous peripherals. OMAP is coupled with TI's baseband chip sets.

Challenging TI in the baseband space is Qualcomm. In both baseband and media processing, other key players include STMicroelectonics, Motorola, Philips (Nexperia), and Intel. The handheld space isn't exclusively ARM. Renesas has been successful with the SH-RISC. There are versions of the SH with DSP functionality. Two smaller chip vendors focused on improving imaging and video functions with their respective media processors are NeoMagic and nVidia, who acquired MediaQ in 2003.

The software-configurable, highly parallel DSP array processors represent another force entering the market. Close to a dozen small vendors are demonstrating novel architectures that can deliver performance levels that were previously in the domain of supercomputers. These vendors include Cradle Technologies, QuickSilver, Morphos, PACT, and many others.

It will become increasingly difficult to distinguish a standalone DSP because the trend is toward system-on-a-chip designs. It will depend on how a chip vendor chooses to categorize its product. Regardless of the name or implementation, DSP is growing in importance for wireless communications.

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