One Design, Many Products

Companies at CES begin rolling out firmware-upgradeable platforms rather than custom-developed products; one SKU fits all.


By Pallab Chatterjee

The tightening worldwide economy finally has forced the consumer products arena to adopt an aggressive single-SKU mentality for their products. This means companies are now making a single standard product that can be sold into multiple applications.

This marks a radical shift in the way products are being designed, a direction that makes the design and development process far more efficient. Already, this approach has begun making its way into flat panel TVs, mobile appliances and radios, with common designs that are targeted for the United States, Europe, Australia, and Asia. All of these products are platform designs that are firmware-programmable.

Two of the companies with major products on display this year at the Consumer Electronic Show that highlighted this approach were Xcieve and Imagination Technologies. Xcieve is a semiconductor company shipping standard product ICs to OEMS with a firmware development toolset. Imagination Technology is an IP core licensing company that also completes the design chain by providing reference designs and full application development software.

Xcieve makes a monolithic 0.18um SiGe single chip tuner for flat panel TV and PVR applications. What makes this interesting from a system-level design standpoint is that most of the other products on the market are traditional hybrid technology can tuners that are fixed-format, based on the wider variation component values. The other solid-state tuners typically utilize 0.25um SiGe technology and do not maintain enough performance margin to be adjustable for the different signal formats.

The new tuner (the XC5000) is DSP based, supports all major analog and digital broadcast standards worldwide, while minimizing the power requirements and component area. The small size makes the product advantageous for the new slim line LCD & Plasma displays as well as low profile PVR set top boxes. At this time the XC5000 has adopted by LG, Miele, Sony and others in their TV, combo TV/Monitor and PVR products.

All personalization for region of destination is done with a downloadable firmware routine rather than making component changes in the custom circuits. The chip has the ability to real-time monitor the incoming RF signal and dynamically adapt the output to produce a correct signal.

Imagination Technologies has both video and audio IP cores. The audio cores are proven in many designs by PURE, Bose, B&O, Philips, TEAC and Sony and support most of the DVB radio standards, as well the internet radio format model. These cores have an advanced firmware/software framework (called META AAF, or Advanced Audio Framework), which provides a comprehensive suite of audio codecs implementing all major audio formats including MP2, MP3, AAC, eAAC+, WMA, Dolby Digital, Real, plus audio post-processing tools. This is an application of the Imagination Technology META HTPP-Audio solution, which is made of IP blocks that include multi-threaded DSP cores, a customized Linux kernel, and a middleware application library in addition to the AAF product.

The company also released some multi-format HD display targeted multi-threaded PowerVR SGX543 core. This core brings high-performance shading and 3D graphics presentation to a large-format display, based on the same low-power, high-performance multithreaded cores that have been used on their mobile display cores. These cores are joined by a new frame grabber core, which provides for inter-frame generation for 240hz refresh rate applications on flat panel televisions. The use of multi-threaded DSP style cores, in these applications allows for in-application optimization through firmware such as optimizing the Flash 10 performance in browsers on MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices).

These cores and ICs are the new architectural direction of globally targeted semiconductors that are optimized for power and area. The targeting of “standards” such as dictated by the broadcast TV, radio and cell phone industries allows for companies to capitalize on their semiconductor design and manufacturing expertise rather than pushing the performance envelope beyond a usable limit. This trend is broadening in the industry as the communication standards solidify and more multi-function products (media servers, netbooks, graphics capture devices, etc.) enter the marketplace.

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