General purpose processors flash their assets

At this week's Embedded Processor Forum, systems-on-a-chip are in vogue and more and more manufacturers are finding they can count on off-the-shelf standard processors to get the job done
Written by John G.Spooner, Contributor

The same microprocessor that lets you burn through a game of Gran Turismo may soon be running your PC's printer, as electronics manufacturers increasingly rely on general-purpose processors.

"Standard" processors and system-on-a-chip designs that combine the function of several chips in one piece of silicon dominate the new offerings on display at the Embedded Processor Forum, which began on Tuesday in San Jose, California. Chip manufacturers and designers at the forum are expected to announce about 30 new microprocessors, digital signal processors and other chips meant to power devices such as video game consoles, handheld computers, set-top boxes and networking equipment.

Unlike their experience with previous generations of those devices, which required specialised -- and costly -- processors, manufacturers now are finding they can get the job done with off-the-shelf chips.

"If you look at what has happened to electronics over a long period of time, standard processors, as they have come down in price, have subsumed more applications," said John Bourgoin, chief executive of chip design firm MIPS Technologies.

"You'll always see a lot of very specialised processors that have high-end functions," he said. However, "you'll also see increasing demand for general-purpose processors."

Standard processors often offer performance and power consumption improvements, but the main advantages are cost and ease of development. Instead of designing and manufacturing a custom processor to perform a specific job inside an electronic device, in most cases its manufacturer can find a general-purpose processor and outsource its production, a much less costly way to get a device to market, Bourgoin said.

MIPS, which sells processor designs to chipmakers such as Texas Instruments and LSI Logic, is showing off two new processor designs aimed at a wide range of consumer devices. The MIPS64 5Kf processor core, for example, offers speeds of up to about 400MHz in combination with 64bit addressing, which allows it to tackle applications in which large amounts of data must be crunched, such as set-top boxes playing video.

Also showing off new chips is Motorola, which announced its new Dragonball MX1. Motorola, which holds about 75 percent of the market for processors used in personal digital assistants (PDAs), expects the new processor to be adopted by PDA makers, as well as companies that manufacture cell phones.

The new chip is part of a growing push toward system-on-a-chip (SOC) designs that save money, power and processing time by combining multiple functions on one piece of silicon. Besides a central processor based on ARM Holdings' 200MHz 920T design, the new Dragonball includes a graphics accelerator, an LCD controller, and support for attachments such as a USB device and Memory Stick removable storage. It replaces up to six separate chips.

Processor designs from ARM and MIPS are likely to be key elements of such all-in-one chips, allowing chipmakers to easily combine a familiar core with other functions specific to a given device. A recent Dataquest report shows ARM and MIPS together accounting for 30 percent of the $689m (about £470m) worldwide semiconductor intellectual property market in 2000. The intellectual property market includes pre-designed chip technologies, such as a processor core, created for use in a semiconductor device.

As a result of declining costs and greater expertise in working with chip intellectual property, "you're beginning to see the emergence of a pretty serious SOC world", Bourgoin said. "I think we're just at the tip of the iceberg, here.

"IP companies of the world are improving their products substantially... making it progressively easier to allow companies to build their own SOC products."

Devices powered by these all-in-one chips will include set-top boxes and game consoles, in which such chip designs are already common practice, but the chips will also find their way into printers, networking equipment and even smart cards. Printers, for example, would benefit from a chip that helps grant the ability to connect the printer with other devices, such as a mobile phone.

In set-top boxes, "what you see... is a desire by the service companies to have the ability to download more advanced applications over time," Bourgoin said. "They want the head room to be able to add applications."

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