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RISC setting standards for set-top boxes

The microprocessor platform is emerging as the clear trendsetter in the TV set-top box market.

Although RISC (reduced instruction set computing) processors have been losing ground to Intel-based chips in desktop computers, the platform is emerging as the clear trendsetter in the TV set-top box market.

Today, for example, Integrated Device Technology announced that it has won a contract to supply its MIPS RISC-based processor for a line of set-top boxes from VideoSurfer, while LSI Logic unveiled details surrounding the G12, a system-on-a-chip device for home electronics units.

The announcements follow a number of cable TV and set-top box wins for MIPS-based chips and other RISC processors such as those based on Sun Microsystems' Sparc technology. In another RISC victory, sources say Intel apparently will not supply TCI with processors for 10 million set-top boxes.

While it is too early to count any vendor or processor maker out, the ultimate direction of product development should start to become clearer later this spring when a series of cable and television conferences take place, according to Richard Doherty, president of the Envisioneering Group. By then, the cable companies will present a better picture of the hardware and software platform they want, although their demands will likely conflict with the business models of the traditional computer vendors.

The main reason for the trend is cost, analysts said. RISC chips are generally smaller and less expensive to manufacture. RISC chips also enjoy a distinct design advantage because they consume less power, making it easier and cheaper to build boxes around them, noted Jim Turley, an analyst with MicroDesign Resources. In many cases, they are also more efficient processing engines than Intel chips.

Taken together, these advantages could give RISC makers the edge in the new era of small computing, provided that the market takes off.

"The set-top box market is sort of a black hole. It sucks up a lot of processors, but not much comes out," Turley said. "The [chipmakers] claim they are all going to France...I think it's time for a road trip. I want to see what everyone has on their TV in France."

The RISC advantage is defined by the parameters of the silicon die, according to Nathan Brookwood, semiconductor analyst at Dataquest. RISC chips are one-third to two-thirds the size of processors based around the Intel x86 architecture. Thus, all things being equal, RISC makers can produce more chips out of the same fixed set of materials.

This is especially important because the chips have to be fairly cheap to fit into set-top boxes, Brookwood added.

"The set-top box market is currently perceived to be one that is not wedded to the x86 architecture. The good news is, you have a shot," he said. "The bad news is that this is not a market that will support a $200 microprocessor."

Instead, RISC vendors have to sell a chip that may cost nearly as much to make as a standard desktop processor in the $40 to $50 range.

Power consumption constitutes the second advantage. Intel chips use two to three times the power of RISC chips. Power creates heat, which in turn forces set-top makers to consider additional insulation costs. Fans are expensive and loud, not the sort of accessory consumer manufacturers want to use.

Some market leaders are already emerging in this space, according to Turley. Chips built around technology from MIPS, the chip design subsidiary of Silicon Graphics, have been adopted by a number of chipmakers and set-top manufacturers. PowerPC chips from IBM and Motorola have done well, as have those based around designs from Advanced RISC Machines (ARM). Intel, in fact, has already said it will make chips based around the ARM design.

AMD and Cyrix also are trying to penetrate this market by wedding their Intel-compatible chips with additional functions such as graphics processing. Sources close to AMD said that the company is in negotiations with a number of set-top manufacturers.

How this market develops, however, ultimately will depend on the agreements struck between the device makers and their first large customers, the cable operators. The two industries are still at odds in many respects, said Doherty.

The cable operators essentially want a low-cost access box strictly to serve as a conduit for cable services. The box is mostly a burden to them, while revenue comes from providing access to content. Meanwhile, software and hardware products have traditionally made money by continuously upgrading products that can play a variety of content products.

These two ways of looking at the world come into conflict over questions such as DVD drives, noted Doherty. Cable operators will want to exclude the drives because they could compete with their own entertainment offerings. PC vendors, by contrast, will be less than excited about making devices without a DVD bay because such devices add to their bottom lines.

Further, because advanced set-top boxes are still relatively new, it is still unclear what end users will want. "They [the large hardware vendors] have teams of engineers looking at what combination of tools, processors, and software work best," he said.

Thus it remains uncertain what the standard set-top box platform will come to include. At the National Cable Show in May, large vendors will likely provide competing reference designs for set-top boxes, yet the cable vendors will probably not settle on any one specification, but rather begin moving toward a common center.