Nvidia reveals details of Xbox mystery chip

The chip includes support for broadband and dial-up Internet access, further proof that Microsoft's Xbox is shaping up to be more than just a game machine.

4 min read
Nvidia today disclosed details of the multimedia chip it is creating for the Xbox game console, revealing the chipmaker's strategy to move beyond its graphics beginnings.

Nvidia's media communications processor, dubbed the MCPX, will handle advanced audio along with connections to networking, storage and other components.

The chip, which accompanies an Nvidia graphics chip and Intel Pentium III processor inside the game console, includes support for broadband and dial-up Internet access, further proof that Microsoft's upcoming Xbox is shaping up to be more than just a game machine. With this chip, Microsoft can market the box as a home networking station.

But Nvidia's new silicon will also play a part in grander plans at Nvidia to occupy more real estate inside PCs and to put the company in direct competition with Intel and Via Technologies.

Taken together, the multimedia and graphics chips Nvidia is making for the Xbox can supplant most of the companion chips that accompany a microprocessor inside a PC.

Traditionally, computers have had a number of chips besides a processor, including separate graphics and audio processors as well as what is known as a chipset, a collection of semiconductors that route data between the processor and other components on a computer motherboard.

Increasingly the graphics functions are being integrated into what is dubbed the north bridge of the chipset. Nvidia has upped the stakes by integrating the audio into the part known as the south bridge that handles connection to hard drives and other peripherals.

By the second half of next year, Nvidia plans to begin selling an integrated graphics chip that adds memory controller functions, as well as a modified version of the multimedia communications chip it is developing for the Xbox. Right now, Intel and Via dominate this market.

What's inside the mystery chip: 
• Audio processing unit
• Dual digital signal
• Modem interface
• Ethernet controller with
  home networking
• Dolby Digital encoder
• USB controller
• Storage I/O controller 
Nvidia chief executive Jen Hsun Huang said in July that his company was working on two of the three main chips for the Xbox but declined to say what functions the other chip would handle. At the time, analysts said the Microsoft project could well be footing the bill for Nvidia's transition from graphics specialist to PC chip giant.

The multimedia chip for the Xbox will include a dual digital signal processor, an audio processor, a Dolby Digital sound encoder, a USB controller, a modem interface and an Ethernet controller with built-in support for home networking. Nvidia said the chip, which contains 6 million transistors, will be manufactured on a 0.15-micron manufacturing process.

Although some algorithms are licensed from other companies, Nvidia said the chip design is all its own. The design draws on the strength of recent hires including former engineers at sound-chip company Aureal, Nvidia vice president Mike Hara said.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Nvidia was already planning to offer the integrated chips when Microsoft approached it about the Xbox, Hara said. In March, Nvidia and Microsoft inked a deal giving Nvidia a $200 million advance on its graphics chip work, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Nvidia beat out graphics start-up Gigapixel for the contract. Gigapixel subsequently was sold to 3dfx Interactive.

Microsoft announces the Xbox (3/19/00)
The Xbox, due to be on sale in time for the 2001 holiday season, has become a key initiative for Microsoft. The software giant said yesterday that more than 150 companies are developing games for the console. The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant is clearly trying to draw attention and interest toward its forthcoming device and away from Sony's PlayStation2, which is making its U.S. debut Oct. 26.

Microsoft is already planning to spend $500 million to promote Xbox.

Hara said the multimedia communications processor is expected to cost in the mid-$20 range and to be sampling by early next year. Although the cost is higher than most south bridge offerings, MicroDesign Resources analyst Peter Glaskowsky said it probably will be worth it to computer makers.

"It's basically comparable to any PC chipset, plus it has a lot of extra stuff," Glaskowsky said. "If it costs a few bucks more, that's OK."

While the move makes Nvidia an instant competitor to Intel and Via in the chipset market, its biggest threat is to companies such as Cirrus Logic that make standalone audio chips for PCs, Glaskowsky said.

"If I were (them), I'd be very worried," he said.