National sets sights on low end

The company's Cyrix subsidiary is in the process of expanding its chip lineup for the sub-$1,000 computer and Internet appliance markets.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
SAN JOSE, California--For a computer vendor that wants a low-end chip, Cyrix is working on the answer.

The processor subsidiary of National Semiconductor is in the process of expanding its silicon lineup for the sub-$1,000 computer and Internet appliance markets. By next year, the computer vendor will be marketing four distinct classes of processors that will be suited for everything from low-cost multimedia PCs to DVD players, set-top boxes, and the always fashionable wearable PC.

The company, in fact, scored recent design wins with Via Technologies, which sells a computer-on-a-belt, and Casio, which is using a version of the company's integrated MediaGX for a handheld computer in Japan, according to Steve Tobak, vice president of sales and marketing.

The key to National's strategy lies in integrating functions, such as graphics and audio, into the main processor. Although integrated chips tend to lag in overall speed, they make up the difference by reducing the overall cost.

"The low cost solution is...putting as much as you can on a chip using the most advanced (production) process," said Brian Halla, CEO of National at the Microprocessor Forum in San Jose this week.

The challenge of this market is meeting the design requirements of computer vendors, said Tobak. To accommodate them, National is marketing two classes of chips in 1998, the M II Intel clone and the Media GX integrated processor, then expanding the number to four in 1999.

At the high end of Cyrix's product family will be "Jedi," a processor built around National's upcoming Cayenne processor technology. The Jedi, which is essentially a modified Intel clone chip, will be National's most traditional offering. The processor will fit into Pentium-compatible ("Socket 7") motherboards which are also used for AMD's K6 processors. In general, the Jedi will succeed the current M II processor.

"The Jedi will be the highest performance chip in the entry level," said Tobak.

While ostensibly a clone, the chip will come out on a next-generation 0.18-micron manufacturing process, the first chip from Cyrix to be released under this advanced manufacturing technology, said Tobak. Jedi will run at speeds that Cyrix says will be equivalent to 366 MHz and 450 MHz.

Just underneath the Jedi will be the MXi, due in April 1999. The MXi will share the same Cayenne processor technology as the Jedi but integrate, among other features, a 3D graphics processing unit. The chip, which comes out in April 1999, will run at 333 MHz to 400 MHz.

Tobak said that Cyrix and possibly AMD will have a significant advantage over Intel in the low-end of the market segment for most or all of 1999. This is because Intel is not going to bring Katmai to Celeron chips until the end of '99 at the earliest. Cyrix and AMD chips will feature 3Dnow technology, an instruction set that enhances multimedia, and therefore AMD and Cyrix will have multimedia enhancements in the low segment for an entire year when Intel will not, Tobak said.

"This leaves a huge opportunity for us to drive MXi and Jedi into the dominant market segments," he said. "Intel is going to have to start developing for the low end, not just segmenting products for the low end."

While those two chips will be aimed at PCs, National will target the "PC-on-a-chip" and future generations of its MediaGX processor at the device market, said Tobak. The difference between the PC-on-a-chip and the MediaGX largely lie in the degree of integration. PC-on-a-chip products will contain TV tuners, audio subsystems, video decoders (for video playback) and other multimedia features. These chips, ideally, will wind up as the brains inside DVD players and set-top boxes.

MediaGX chips, by contrast, will mostly integrate functions, such as memory controllers, that are part of the standard PC architecture. As a result, MediaGX chips will be simpler and upgraded more slowly.

"The MediaGX will be offered in parallel with the PC-on-a-chip," Tobak said. PC-on-a-chip and MediaGX chips will run at speeds up to 300 MHz. Unlike the desktop chips, National will use a true megahertz rating on the integrated chips.

While many observers have pointed out that integrated PCs are talked about more than used, Halla said that the company has scored recent customer wins. Via's computer belt, for example, was recently adopted by on a trial basis at Starbuck's.

In 2000, the company will give its internal architecture a boost. The Cayenne technology will be replaced by an architecture called Jalapeno, which will run at speeds up to 800 MHz. Jalapeno will also contain 256KB of on-chip secondary cache, National's first processor with integrated cache memory. Jalapeno chips will serve as the core of standard processors as well as future generations of the MXi. Future MXi chips will also integrate more features.

In turn, the PC-on-a-chip and MediaGX lines will graduate to the Cayenne technology. Processor speeds will run up to 500 MHz.