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Introducing the 'system on a chip'

National Semi's Geode SC3200 stresses integration, promising low-priced, high-speed Net appliances that use fewer chips

National Semiconductor the company that popularised the concept of Web PAD Internet appliances, Monday introduced its next-generation Internet appliance processor, the Geode SC3200.

National Semi calls the Geode SC3200 a "system on a chip", since it integrates features from four chips -- the same processor core as its predecessor, a video processor, memory controller and input/output controller -- on a single microprocessor.

In a separate announcement Monday, National Semi introduced its Geode SC1200 and Geode SC2200 chips for set-top boxes and network terminals. Both are similar in design to the Geode SC3200, but they integrate different features for use with separate applications.

Geode SC3200 customers will be able to design systems with only a handful of chips -- possibly as few as three -- where before they had to use as many as six or seven, including radio frequency, firmware and audio chips.

Integration means the new processor will have on-board support for graphics processing input/output, plus peripheral component interconnect, IDE hard drive connection, and Universal Serial Bus, among other features. Integration also will mean lower-cost systems, reduced power consumption and the ability to produce smaller Net appliances, National Semi said.

"We're trying to optimise the overall system cost by taking a system-level approach," said Mal Humphrey, director of the company's Web personal access device (Web PAD) and residential gateway divisions.

The new chip will also help National Semi to keep a firm grip on the Internet appliance market, said Humphrey, noting the company's 120 design wins with early-sampling versions of Geode SC3200 and its predecessor, the Geode GX1. Competitors in the market include Transmeta -- whose chips are being used in the much-publicised America Online/Gateway Net appliances due later 2000 -- Rise Technologies and AMD, whose E86 family of embedded processors are popular among Net appliance makers. To a lesser extent, Intel is a Net appliance market player with its StrongARM and Celeron chips.

The Geode SC3200 200MHz and 233MHz consume less than four watts of power and power consumption averages two watts of power or less, the company said. The chip will cost less than $50 when purchased in quantities of 10,000 or more.

National Semi will continue to evolve its Geode chip, Humphrey said. "What we see as the next step is [integration of] the connectivity piece."

National Semi is also considering whether to integrate radio-frequency technologies, such as 802.11 or Bluetooth, into future Geode chips, according to Humphrey. On the other hand, audio features will likely remain separate.

The Geode SC3200 is expected to ship this year in several Internet appliances.

"There will be another set of announcements this fall season, with some top-tier names," Humphrey said. "We expect the first major announcement will occur in the fourth quarter of this year."

Many manufacturers will announce products around the Autumn/Comdex trade show, while others will hold on until next January's Consumer Electronics Show.

Prices are expected to range widely and will depend on whether the Net appliances are stand-alone Web terminals or mobile Web PADs. The terminals will cost up to $500 while mobile Web PADs, with more expensive screens, radios and batteries, will start at roughly $1,000.

See Chips Central for daily hardware news, including an interactive timeline of AMD and Intel's upcoming product launches.

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