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National targets Net devices boom with low-power chip

National Semiconductor plans to release a new round of low-cost, low-power integrated processors for set-top boxes and other appliances.

Hoping to capitalize on the recent mania for Internet devices, National Semiconductor today will release a new round of low-cost, low-power integrated processors for set-top boxes and other appliances.

The new, souped-up Geode from National will run at speeds up to 300 MHz, according to the company, but provide better battery life than earlier models. Geode chips contain an Intel-compatible processor, a graphics unit, a memory controller, an audio processor and other functions on a single chip.

The new chips will differ from earlier counterparts in that they will be made using the more advanced 0.18-micron manufacturing process, rather than the 0.25-micron process. Chips made using the 0.18-micron process essentially contain smaller wires and other elements than the older chips. The smaller elements mean electrons don't have to travel as far, which leads to lower power consumption, longer battery life and faster chips.

Power consumption in many cases is more important than absolute performance, said Mike Polacek, vice president of National's information appliance division. Manufacturers are looking at incorporating these types of chips into Web pads and other portable units in which high-power chips would drain batteries too quickly.

"In most of our customer design wins, they (hardware manufacturers) are gravitating toward the lower frequency devices. They are more concerned with power reduction."

The new Geodes will consume less than a watt in certain applications, which should give National an edge, Polacek stated. By contrast, Transmeta's Crusoe is expected to dissipate about a watt, according to that company, while Intel chips historically have put out 4 watts or more.

The Geode also contains built-in graphics, unlike Transmeta's chips. The chips will likely be seen in countertop Web computers later this summer and in portable Web tablets toward the end of the year, Polacek said.

National will also market the chip for set-top boxes. The company last year snagged a deal with Philips to provide processors for Philips' AOL TV set-tops.

Despite optimism and growing perceived demand for devices, squeezing profit out of the device market may prove to be a tricky business. Devices will likely cost far less than traditional PCs, which means components will have to sell for fairly low prices.

"The entire board has got to be in the $100 range," Polacek said. "This is not a market where you can sell a $200 to $300 processor."

National has circumvented some of the cost issues through integration. The company marketed the first commercially successful integrated processor in 1997. The chip, called the MediaGX, was incorporated into a Compaq Presario that became the first popular sub-$1,000 computer.

Despite initial success, the MediaGX faded from the market because of competition from Advanced Micro Devices, Intel and others. National eventually sold most of its processor division to Via Technologies. The Geode emerged from the MediaGX effort.