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National slims down price for thin clients

National Semiconductor makes available a new reference design for thin clients that manufacturers can build for about $200.

National Semiconductor (NSM) has offered up its own thin-client reference platform, which the company claims will allow vendors to build devices for less than $200.

National Semiconductor is making available a new thin client reference design called "Odin" that is build around Intel's 486 chip architecture.

This further splinters the market for slimmed-down, simplified PCs. Already, major platforms have been established, namely the Network Computer reference design from Oracle and the recently announced NetPC thin-client initiative from Microsoft, Intel, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, and other PC vendors.

"The way we look at the market, there is a lot of hype built around higher end boxes. Other reference designs are not really geared toward a $500 home box or thin-client device," according to Joe Salvador, senior marketing manager of National Semiconductor's Integrated Processor Group. "What we've tried to do is capture value in the software industry because virtually every real-time OS runs on the x86 architecture," he said.

The NS486 processor, which was designed for embedded applications, has an ISA bus interface, DRAM controller, IrDA infrared support, and a parallel port and PC Card controller all on one chip, which makes it capable of supporting readily available, low-cost PC peripherals. Odin will come with either 4MB or 16MB of RAM, depending on the market.

Salvador says the raw computing power of the Odin design is less than that called for by the NC reference design because a real-time operating system doesn't require as much power. The Odin design can run Java natively on the x86 architecture or on top of another operating system, according to Salvador. The networking drivers and GUI interface support DOS file systems, and the Web browser can run using under 2MB of memory.

"We said, 'Hey, let's take a step back, get the industry to coalesce around a few things that everybody supports, and we can all get to market faster with the product,'" said Salvador.

Along with the NS486, the reference design includes an Ethernet chip for use in connecting to NT servers or a Rockwell 33.6-kbps modem chip for use in consumer applications. The Rockwell chip offers full-duplex speakerphone capability, fax send-and-receive capability, as well as supporting digital answering machine functions. The company has also included a graphics controller that can be used with SVGA monitors or NTSC-standard TVs and Rockwell's WaveArtist single-chip audio system for CD-quality sound. Support for Java applets and the Java virtual machine is also included.

Software vendors already developing for the Odin platform include Insignia, Microware, QNX, and Wind River Systems. Because the NS486 runs Java, any Java-based application can run on the system.

National Semiconductor says that manufacturers and software developers will be able to start building Odin devices in the first quarter of next year.