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Converters heed call of 'real world'

Posted: 01 Mar 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:pat o'doherty? analog devices? adi? analog devices inc? analog chip industry?

As the analog chip industry finds more places than ever to play in this increasingly "digital" world, the definition of high-performance analog ICs is evolving from one-dimensional specsmanship into multiple dimensions that have much more to do with enabling system performance breakthroughs than with a single number on a component's data sheet.

Such things as the optimal level of integration of the IC, ease-of-use and the value of any given function in the system have become of paramount importance as system design lead times shrink and design engineers get less time to explore all possible options. The race to improve analog IC performance specifications by a fraction of a least-significant bit or an extra decibel has thus become far less relevant to system designers than the ability to squeeze high-performance data converters into tiny packages without compromising performance; accommodate real-world 10V signals in a submicron mixed-signal CMOS IC without tacking on any external components and provide a balanced, uniform set of signal-acquisition specifications that will allow customers to easily achieve the level of system performance specified for a given IC.

This intimacy with the real world has radically changed the focus of IC development among the leading analog manufacturers. A new applications sensitivity now drives chip development as much as the capability of process/design, in products for both vertical and horizontal markets. Vertical products or ASSPs have long had to deal with these issues, but now even horizontal productsor multipurpose building blocksare often being defined with two or three target markets in mind. As such, the data-converter supplier will take great care to hit the right performance point and add the correct combination of peripheral building blocks to maximize customer value for each of those markets.

For example, the proliferation of handheld equipment has created a huge demand for tiny, low-power data converters to control display brightness, monitor battery charge and other functions. The initial response of some IC manufacturers was to strip off voltage references and amplifiers to achieve the "world's lowest-power/smallest converter." The fact that these ICs still required an external reference and external buffer amplifier somehow got lost in the initial marketing noise. Similarly, cellular base-station manufacturers looking to increase the range and accuracy of their wireless infrastructure equipment may benefit from analog ICs with higher resolution and data sample rates, but only if those parts suppress noise and RF harmonics. Only by increasing spurious-free dynamic range and signal-to-noise ratio levels can weak signals be properly captured.

System designers are not easily fooled by data-sheet numbers for sampling speed and resolution, and ICs that achieve a seemingly breakthrough performance in one dimension may sacrifice other parameters. In such cases, the 15 minutes of fame can easily lead to a fall. More innovation in IC design and process development may be required to provide not just breakthrough specifications, but true utility for the user.

- Pat O'Doherty
Product Line Director
Analog Devices Inc.

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