AMD releases a consumer electronics chip

The chips don't sell for a lot of money, but the company figures the market will snatch up millions of them.

First, Advanced Micro Devices went upmarket with the Opteron chip for servers. Now, it wants to go downscale into the consumer electronics market with a new line of Geode chips for gadgets.

The new Geode LX800 is an energy-efficient processor for small computers, set-top boxes, TVs and handhelds, according to Chief Technical Officer Fred Weber. The chip runs at 533MHz and is said to provide the equivalent performance of an 800MHz processor from Via Technologies.

"We saw that we could go up with x86, so we thought, if you can go up, you can probably go down."
--Fred Weber
Chief technical
officer, AMD

While that's far less oomph than chips for notebooks and desktops, the processor only consumes about 0.9 watts and does not require heat sinks or fans. This lowers both cost and the overall volume of devices. At the same time, it's an x86 chip, so all the conventional software produced for desktops will run on it, unlike many CE chips.

"Software is more and more the problem people are facing," Weber said. Seventeen companies are currently tinkering with prototypes running the chip, and a few of these products will likely hit shelves later this year.

Both Intel and AMD have begun to squeeze their chips into consumer electronics devices. Intel won a contract to supply Celeron chips for a Microsoft set-top box and is working on a line of chips derived from its notebook and desktop lines for CE devices. AMD, meanwhile, earlier released the Geode NX line. These chips are used in the Personal Internet Communicator promoted by AMD in India.

Both companies, though, will face stiff competition from incumbents like Texas Instruments and ARM, which have for years developed chips, software and reference designs for CE manufacturers.

The company came up with the idea of going into electronics while producing the Opteron chip. "We saw that we could go up with x86, so we thought, if you can go up, you can probably go down," Weber explained. The strategy is now known as x86 Everywhere.

The consumer electronics market, however, differs substantially. For one thing, the chips must cost less. The highest-performing Geode LX chips, with a companion chipset, will cost $45, far less than desktop and server chips.

"You need to sell millions of them to make money," conceded Weber. On the bright side, these chips cost less to develop than server chips, and manufacturers often want supply contracts that last five years.

AMD also provides more silicon than usual. Typically, AMD lets third parties manufacture chipsets to go with its processors, but the stability required in these sorts of devices means that AMD will make both the processor and chipset, said Erik Salo, marketing director for AMD.

These chips also come with other features not found on desktop or server parts. The Geode LX comes with a built-in encryption engine and 2D graphics. A separate 3D graphics chip can be added.

"The graphics and the processor both want to be close to the memory, and the only way to do that is to put them on the same chip," Weber said. In desktops, chipsets, but not the processor, will often contain a 3D graphics chip.

The overall design of the chip comes from National Semiconductor. AMD bought the Geode processor division from National in 2003. (National bought it from Cyrix in 1997.) A foundry will produce the Geode LX line on behalf of AMD.

The Geode NX, meanwhile, derives more from the Athlon line created at AMD.

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