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Set-top box relies on Windows CE

ATI hopes to stand out with one of the first devices to feature Windows CE as well as DVD and 3D playback capabilities.

Toronto, Canada-based ATI Technologies today joined the raft of vendors offering Internet set-top box designs, but it hopes to stand out with one of the first devices to feature the Windows CE operating system, as well as DVD and 3D playback capabilities.

Contrary to recent trends, ATI's "Set-top-Wonder CE" design calls for an Intel-compatible x86 processor, although not necessarily one from Intel.

A variety of different operating systems and chips have been used in set-top boxes to date, but so far no designs have combined Windows with an Intel chip architecture, a combination that is prevalent in the desktop computing world.

In part, this owes to the high cost and comparatively low performance offered by Intel's designs vis-a-vis RISC (reduced instruction set computing) processors. But analysts say Advanced Micro Devices and Cyrix have a good chance to enjoy some success in this market by wedding their low-cost Intel-compatible chips with additional functions such as graphics processing. Intel is also expected to become more active in this market with its Pentium II architecture.

ATI's set-top box design points to an evolution in a product segment that has enjoyed only moderate success to date. The graphics chipmaker is offering the reference platform design to original equipment manufacturers. No pricing or availability was announced.

ATI is adding the ability to play back DVD movies and games through the use of specialized processors that the company has developed, crossing the boundary between a game machine, standalone DVD player, and Internet access terminal. Software designed by ATI offers the ability to do "instant replays" based on TV content, view up to 16 channels simultaneously, and even save images to a file.

So far, most designs such as RCA's set-top box have followed in the footsteps of Microsoft's WebTV device by offering basic consumer features such as Internet access, email, and combined Web and TV content viewing.

Other manufacturers, such as Boca Research, are selling set-top boxes that are more like business computers, offering access to Windows software such as Microsoft Word or the Excel spreadsheet program.

But WebTV has had the most success to date, having sold an estimated 300,000 units in a year and a half. These devices are quickly expanding into a more general-purpose entertainment appliance in order to target an even wider audience--a portion of the 40 million people expected to be online by the year 2001 who can't afford a full-blown PC, according to research firm International Data Corporation.

Microsoft is at work moving the Windows CE operating system into the WebTV box and is rumored to be working on a version that includes a DVD player. Apple Computer also is working on a similar device that would use the Macintosh operating system.