TI aims new chip at MP3 players

The company announces its first chip designed for digital music players, while acknowledging that industrywide shipments of MP3 players will fall below predictions this year.

3 min read
Texas Instruments today announced its first chip designed specifically for digital music players, at the same time acknowledging that industrywide shipments of MP3 players will fall below predictions again this year.

The new chip, the DA250, is a modified version of TI's mainstay digital signal processor (DSP). The new chip will allow people to play 70 hours worth of digital music from a pair of AA batteries.

The new processor saves power because it has a core that can temporarily shut down circuits on the chip when they are not in use, TI said. The DA250 will also improve a system's power use by including features, such as a universal serial bus (USB) interface, that had previously required a separate chip.

Digital audio is one of several emerging markets that TI is using to move DSPs beyond the cell phone world in which TI holds nearly half the market. TI's existing DSPs are already used in several current MP3 players, such as Sony's Music Clip.

However, a crunch in flash memory means that fewer portable players--and thus fewer chips--will ship this year than had originally been forecast.

"We had hoped about 3 million units would ship this year," TI vice president John Van Scoter said. "I think it's going to come in shy of that, maybe 2.5 million."

Last year, fewer than 1 million digital music players were sold as the high-cost flash memory limited production.

Next year when the new chip arrives, Van Scoter said, up to 7 million players could be sold, provided there is enough cheap flash memory and a good supply of major-label music content.

IDC analyst Xavier Pucel said anything that TI can do to help gear makers extend battery life will help TI's position.

"It's always a good idea to optimize a chip," Pucel said. "Anything that can save power is good. Obviously, you don't want to change your battery every week."

TI's DA250 chip also allows digital music players to download songs without a PC, unlike most early MP3 players. The new chip does this by allowing the players to take sound directly from an audio source, such as a CD player, and encode it onto digital storage.

"We're taking advantage of the horsepower of the DSP," Van Scoter said.

TI has touted the ability of its programmable chips to allow for new features via software improvements. TI believes this feature gives it an advantage over other types of chips used in digital music players. Some companies, in turn, have promoted the ability to add new features to their products via upgrades.

However, that does not always mean that player makers will offer such upgrades. In some cases, equipment makers produce new models using the same chips and circuit boards without offering upgrades to those who bought older models.

"When they say it's upgradeable, you should ask them who is going to upgrade," Pucel said. "Is it the consumer?"

Other products, such as RCA's Lyra, have added the ability to play new music formats through software patches.

Van Scoter said TI touts both types of upgrades when it is pitching to new customers, along with a third advantage: the ability to fix bugs without having to redesign the chip.

TI's new chip should be available early next year and cost about $10 each in volumes of 250,000 or more, TI said. Samsung plans to use the chip in a future player, and TI said its chips will be integrated into about 60 players that will debut over the next 18 months.