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Via strengthens media platform for home video

Posted: 17 May 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:pc? home? video? via? chip?

The emergence of the home video gateway as a potential next big thing has created quite a stir in consumer electronics circles. But it also has not escaped the attention of chip suppliers in the personal computer space like Via Technologies Inc.

There are technical and tactical reasons for this. As a practical matter, serving the margin-free PC market is not one of life's most rewarding endeavors right now, and pursuit of the ever-faster PC is slowing. So PC-oriented chip and board companies are looking for ways to leverage their expertise and technology in markets with better margins - like home entertainment.

"At CeBIT, Via has its booth divided into a performance PC area and a platform area," said Via Technologies' marketing manager for platforms, Tim Handley. "This year, for the first time, the platform section is drawing considerably more traffic than the performance section."

But it's not just about expedience. The role of the PC in early-adopter homes is changing, according to research studies. Increasingly, the earlies see the PC, not the TV, as the more important portal for information and entertainment. That has put the home PC in the running, along with the set-top box, the high-speed digital gateway and personal recording/viewing appliances, for the role of official home media gateway.

And that race is triggering a race to integrate the necessary features into motherboard hardware. But the constraints are a little different in the digital media gateway race than they were in the PC arena. To begin with, it's not about boosting CPU performance. "Quite the opposite; it's about offloading as many tasks as possible from the CPU. That way you can use the lowest-power CPU and avoid fans, noise-location constraints and reliability issues," Handley said.

So the development of a media platform becomes a balancing act between feature acceleration, power consumption, footprint and the ever-present problem of constantly changing digital media formats. Via's most recent cut at this problem is a new north-bridge chip, the CN400 Digital Media chip. It is a single-chip north bridge, but it is used with Via's existing VTB237 south bridge, Vinyl Audio and DriveStation chips to form a set.

What's included?

The CN400 starts out as a relatively standard Via north bridge, supporting a variety of Via low-power processors or anything else with a 66MHz to 200MHz front-side-bus attachment. The chip connects to double-data-rate DRAM at up to 400MHz, and links to the south bridge through Via's proprietary V-link connection. A UniChrome Pro 3D graphics engine is included in the CN400 as well. The chip requires no separate graphics or working memory.

To this base, Via has added a video display engine. This hardware includes a fully autonomous MPEG-2 decoder and acceleration blocks for MPEG-4 decode. There are sufficient differences between MPEG-4 implementations in the industry, Handley said, to make it unwise to embed the entire MPEG-4 decode operation in hardware. Hence, the hard bits are done in the CN400, with the tasks that vary from stream to stream done in the CPU.

Video stream input and high-definition output hardware are provided as well. The CN400 is designed to attach a low-voltage differential-signaling driver chip - for a monitor - and a video output driver directly. Thus the chip can support TV - high-definition if desired - and/or monitor configurations. As an option, graphics and video can be combined on a single device.

To keep the power consumption down, Via used TSMC's 0.15?m process. The result is typical consumption under 2.5W, permitting the processor-north bridge combination to come in under 5W.

Combining the CN400 with Via's south bridge, audio and mass-storage chips would give a motherboard all the functionality a home digital media platform would require, and the power and size necessary to fit into this market, Handley said. That advances Via's claim that PC-based platforms can compete against more integrated, less general-purpose SoC-based solutions coming from the consumer segment.

- Ron Wilson

EE Times

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