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Optoelectronics/Displays??

Universal players avert DVD format duel

Posted: 18 Dec 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Blu-ray? BD< DVD? HD DVD? Braodcom? STMicroelectronics?

Machines capable of playing both Blu-ray Disc (BD) and HD DVD discs will emerge next year to short-circuit the format war in next-generation DVD. Leading chip vendors such as Broadcom Corp., STMicroelectronics (ST) and NEC Electronics Corp. told EE Times they are developing ICs that allow high-definition optical drives and players to comply with the two competing specifications. These suppliers appear to have specific knowledge that their potential customers!whose names they declined to disclose!will roll out universal players as early as 2007.

Although confused consumers might welcome a box that resolved the incompatibility between HD DVD and BD, its advent could also put a crimp in immediate sales. "Many consumers we've interviewed said they would hold off buying a next-generation DVD player until some universal players hit the market," said Richard Doherty, research director at the Envisioneering Group.

Broadcom has already shipped the industry's first dual HD DVD/BD disc decoder chip, designed into the first-generation Toshiba Corp. HD DVD player and into Samsung's BD player. Broadcom will also make its next-generation platform!a much more highly integrated SoC!comply with both formats, while adding support for BD's latest profile.

Broadcom hopes not only to cover its bets in an uncertain format battle, but also to cater to the emerging market for universal players. Asked whether such boxes will reach the consumer market before the end of 2007, Don Shulsinger, VP of business development for Broadcom's broadband communications group, said, "We predict that the most successful product will be universal players."

Similarly, Christos Lagomichos, general manager of the home entertainment group at ST, predicted that "a significant volume of HD-capable optical disc players in 2008 will be universal players."

"Except for politically aligned CE companies, many system vendors cannot afford to lose out on such an opportunity," Henry Nurser, DVD business unit manager at ST, said of universal players.

ST is integrating the latest BD software changes into its STi7200 chip, originally developed for the STB market, along with support for the middleware required by HD DVD and BD. The chip will be in volume in 2007, Nurser said.

While both Broadcom and ST offer only the back-end decoder IC for next-generation DVD players, NEC in October began sampling a front-end processor chipset that can handle read/write operations for both HD DVD and BD disc platters.

"It's just a matter of time" before disc drives compatible with both formats hit the market, said Shigeo Niitsu, VP responsible for SoC LSIs for PC peripherals and A/V digital systems at NEC. Although no drive vendors have released such combo drives yet, he said, "PC companies like HP are looking for drives that are compatible with both formats. Technically speaking, LSIs for such drives are ready."

Combined HD DVD and Blu-ray systems will start showing up in volume in 2007.

According to analyst Doherty, both Samsung and LG Electronics Inc. last year said they would develop and market universal players. LG at that time even said it would have one available by this year. But both companies later retracted their announcements, and Doherty suspects they did so "after being pressured by Sony."

As leader of the BD camp, Sony Corp. has bet big on that format. Its Playstation 3 is a BD system. And on the content side, Sony's Columbia Pictures is releasing titles on BD. Calling the format debate "emotionally charged," Doherty said he believes Sony is urging CE vendors not to develop the universal player, because "it would give HD DVD credibility."

But from the consumer's point of view, many industry observers think the universal player is a no-brainer. "The market will demand universal players," said Peter Besen, VP of the CE group at Broadcom.

For chip manufacturers, meanwhile, making either a front-end or a back-end IC comply with the two competing next-generation DVD formats is no trivial task.

A back-end decoder must be able to handle different OS and separate middleware!Java for BD and Microsoft Corp.'s HDi for HD DVD. Some HD DVD players are based on Windows CE, others on Linux. ST's universal player platform, for example, is built on Linux so as to cater to both HD DVD and BD.

"You need to pay close attention to each spec, anticipate changes in the future and architect a chip with the right partitioning of software and hardware so there will be a built-in flexibility," said ST's Lagomichos.

Broadcom's Shulsinger said the specs must be compared carefully to ensure that each device supports the more stringent requirements of the two.

More difficult challenges include cases in which one format supports items that the other doesn't, Shulsinger said. An even bigger hurdle is the different programming environments. "It's the underlying software infrastructure that requires the huge effort" to make the decoder chip's software robust enough to work properly in both environments, Shulsinger said.

Front-end plans
Both ST and Broadcom plan to enter the front-end IC business as well. ST is working with a Japanese chip vendor that supplies ICs for optical drives. Broadcom is considering partnering with another vendor strong in the optical drive market. It's inevitable that a DSP and the analog chips used in the front-end will be integrated into the back-end decoder IC, said Shulsinger.

The optical side looms as a daunting technical issue. "The bottleneck is optical units," said NEC's Niitsu.

Either a dual-format optical pickup unit or two separate optical pickup units would be necessary for any universal player, said iSuppli's Chris Crotty, because each format stores information at a different depth on the disc.

Ricoh Co. Ltd, for one, is developing an objective lens that can read and write discs of both formats. NEC has developed a front-end chipset consisting of two processors: the PC3360, an analog signal processor that controls the optical pickup and reads out data from discs, and the PD63410, a DSP for data processing such as error correction.

NEC's chipset is designed to control read/write operations and process data from all the discs of 16 formats, including BD, HD DVD, standard DVD and CDs.

ST's Nurser predicted that the cost delta for dual drives will become "very low" in 2007. Asked how much, he declined to comment, noting that he received the information under a non-disclosure agreement.

Envisioneering's Doherty also believes the difference in price for dual drives is relatively minimal. "It's mostly royalties" for each format, he said.

- Dylan McGrath, Junko Yoshida and Yoshiko Hara
EE Times




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