Digital, Sun tell of new chips

Both companies showed advanced technologies destined for the unglamorous embedded market of microwaves, set-top boxes, and cell phones.

2 min read
SAN JOSE, California--At the Microprocessor Forum today, Digital Equipment detailed a processor for use in small devices to rival the performance of desktop processors such as Intel's Pentium II, while Sun showed off its "Java-centric" processor.

Both companies were showing advanced technologies, but ironically both processors are destined for the unglamorous "embedded" market, in which consumers are notoriously indifferent to what lies inside of their cell phone or microwave. Still, companies are increasingly devising processors which are rivaling, if not exceeding, their better-known brethren in desktop PCs.

Digital is working on producing a 300-MHz version of the StrongARM chip that would allow videoconferening and DVD playback in inexpensive consumer devices, according to a presentation given at the conference.

The new processor builds on current StrongARM technology by adding an "Attached Media Processor" (AMP) that's specifically designed to tackle multimedia functions such as video playback, audio processing, and "software" modems. Software modems, which are essentially software programs which run on the computer's built-in microprocessor rather than separate hardware, are less expensive than traditional hardware modems.

"Digital is essentially adding a second brain to do audio and video processing. It?s pretty exotic stuff," says Jim Turley, an analyst with MicroDesign Resources, the sponsor of the chip conference.

"A top-of-the-line Pentium II playing back DVD video [based on the MPEG standard] can barely muster showing a movie without dropping frames," he said. By moving most of the processor-intensive playback to the AMP part of the chip, Digital can offer better performance of DVD, for example, while reducing the need for expensive additional hardware. This is particularly important in cost-sensitive consumer devices.

By comparison, RCA's set-top box for Internet access uses a 40-MHz, 32-bit ARM processor. WebTV Networks, a subsidiary of Microsoft, updated its set-top box design earlier in September with a 167-MHz, 64-bit MIPS processor and also added for the first time a hard disk drive for storing data.

Meanwhile, Sun appears to be hoping to get people interested in its microJava 701 processor by emphasizing that the processor can do more than just Java.

"If there?s one misconception about Java chips, it is that they are code-specific (to Java)," said Harlan McGhan, a group manager for Sun. Sun has set the goal of running all other code at performance levels equivalent to other processors of similar speed and complexity, he said.

McGhan says that the new microJava chip, which is expected to be available in the second half of 1998, adds features such as the ability to combine several instructions from a program together and perform them simultaneously. By doing this, Sun says it can achieve performance equivalent to other processors for non-Java based programs while boosting Java performance.