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Texas Instruments to upgrade DSP line

The launch this week of digital signal processors that run at 1GHz should help TI keep its top spot in providing chips for cellular base stations, video production gear and other systems.

Texas Instruments plans this week to unveil digital signal processors that run at 1GHz, an advance that will likely help the company maintain its top spot in providing chips for cellular base stations, video production gear and other systems.

Increasing the speed from 720GHz to 1GHz in its industrial line of DSPs improves overall performance by around 40 percent and gives equipment makers greater flexibility, said Ray Simar, TI's manager of advanced DSP architecture.

DSPs essentially compress data to conserve bandwidth. Real-world analog data--such as sounds and light--are first converted into digital form by chips known as analog-to-digital converters. The processors then try to maximize the number of digital packets a given device can handle at once.

One of the new 1GHz DSPs, for instance, can process 55 Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) cellular network channels at once, whereas an earlier TI DSP running at 600MHz could only handle 35 channels. (Chips from around 2001 could only handle 16 channels.)

As a result, cellular equipment makers can insert fewer chips into wireless base stations to handle the same, or a larger, volume of calls, according to TI. This could cut costs and improve energy consumption--a key consideration.

In video production equipment, the DSPs would allow broadcasters to decompress more streams simultaneously or produce higher-definition images, the company said. Dalsa, which created the image sensors for the Mars rover Spirit, uses TI DSPs in digital movie cameras.

"Bandwidth is a valuable commodity," Simar said.

DSP leader
While Intel rules the PC processor world, TI remains on top of the DSP pile, according to Jeff Bier, an analyst at BDTI, a firm that tracks the DSP business. Not only does the Dallas-based company sell more chips than its competitors, it has created software and a research environment around its products. When future engineers learn about DSPs in college, they generally study TI's technology, according to several sources.

"In the handset business they are huge. In the infrastructure business they are huge," Bier said. "There is such a rich development environment it is tough for other companies to compete. They get into university labs and make sure they get all the software and equipment they need."

Besides producing DSPs for industrial and networking equipment, the company also manufactures less-complex DSPs and other chips for cell phones. Intel has emerged as a rival in the market for cell phone chips, but TI still holds a wide lead over the Santa Clara, Calif.-based giant and has deals with the vast majority of the leading handset makers.

TI is also expanding its cellular product lines to go after Qualcomm.

In all, TI plans to introduce six chips this week. Three--the C6414T, the C64415T and the C6416T--run at 1GHz. Each contains slightly different features, depending upon the equipment it is designed for. The 1GHz C6414T sells for $189 each, in quantities of ten thousand.

Also set to debut are versions of the chips that run at 720MHz, the same speed as TI's current top industrial DSPs. Priced at $115 in volume amounts, they will cost about half as much as those processors.

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The boost in performance and reduction in costs largely comes from TI's shift to the 90-nanometer manufacturing process--a manufacturing shrink that leads to faster and cheaper chips--and from architectural improvements in the product line.

Older chips were made on the 130-nanometer process. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and a 90-nanometer chip has internal features that measure on average 90 nanometers. The smaller the features, the shorter commute electrons have.

Making chips on 90-nanometer processes isn't easy, however. It requires manufacturers to incorporate new design conventions inside the chips in order to meet performance demands and reduce power consumption.

Intel and rival chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices have delayed their first 90-nanometer products. (Intel's first will come out this quarter, while AMD's will debut in the second half of 2004.) Many Asian foundries have said they won't really start producing chips on this process until after that. Analysts and semiconductor competitors will likely be watching for further delays. However, TI is producing 90-nanometer DSP samples now and has said it will start mass production later this year.