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Set-tops closer to PCs, without Intel

General Instrument, the largest manufacturer of TV set-tops, chooses a MIPS processor for its next-generation boxes.

General Instrument, the largest manufacturer of TV set-top boxes, has chosen a MIPS processor for its next-generation set-top box, a device that will include many features similar to a personal computer.

Major chipmakers Intel and Cyrix lost out in the decision, which is important because General Instrument supplies set-top boxes to cable TV giant TCI and last year won an agreement to supply 12 large cable companies with 15 million new devices. The potential market for set-tops with computer-like features dwarfs the PC market, perhaps numbering in the hundreds of millions, and is a critical area of chip growth.

Quantum Effect Design will supply processors for General Instrument's DCT-5000+ advanced interactive digital cable box, the set-top manufacturer said today.

Due early next year, the new device will offer such features as a built-in hard drive and advanced processing for 3D graphics. These and other capabilities will push TV set-top boxes into computer territory and could ultimately be the vehicle for bringing the PC into the living room.

Quantum Effect Design's MIPS RM5230 chip will deliver processing performance of 233 million instructions per second and run at 175 MHz, General Instrument said. Although RISC (reduced instruction set computing) processors like the Quantum's MIPS chip have been losing ground to Intel-based chips in desktop computers, the platform is emerging as the clear trendsetter in the TV set-top box market.

Earlier this week, Integrated Device Technology said it had won a contract to supply its MIPS RISC-based processor for a line of set-top boxes from VideoSurfer, while LSI Logic disclosed details surrounding the G12, a system-on-a-chip device for home electronics units.

Also today, General Instrument announced other hardware companies will incorporate technology in its set-top boxes. Broadcom, a developer of highly integrated chip technology, has been selected as a supplier for the integration of critical features, according to GI. Broadcom has been working with set-top maker on developing chips integrating video, audio, and graphics functions for GI?s DCT-1000 and DCT-1200 models.

"Broadcom also will be working with GI to integrate more advanced features such as cable modem functionality into a cost-effective silicon solution for use in the DCT-5000+," General Instrument said in a prepared statement.

Later this year, GI will introduce its DCT-2000 set-top box with Motorola's 68331 chip. The DCT-2000 combines advanced MPEG-2 digital video and digital audio with real-time interactive capabilities. This lets service operators to offer increased channel lineups with digital picture and sound. It also will introduce customers to a host of interactive services such as impulse pay-per-view, video-on-demand, television-based Internet access, community networking and more.

While it is too early to count any vendor or processor maker out, the ultimate direction of product development should start to become clearer later this spring when a series of cable and television conferences take place, according to Richard Doherty, president of the Envisioneering Group. By then, the cable companies will present a better picture of the hardware and software platform they want, although their demands will likely conflict with the business models of the traditional computer vendors.

The main reason for the trend toward RISC chips is cost, analysts said. RISC chips are generally smaller and less expensive to manufacture. RISC chips also enjoy a distinct design advantage because they consume less power, making it easier and cheaper to build boxes around them, noted Jim Turley, an analyst with MicroDesign Resources. In many cases, they are also more efficient processing engines than Intel chips.

Taken together, these advantages could give RISC makers the edge in the new era of small computing.

The RISC advantage is defined by the parameters of the silicon die, according to Nathan Brookwood, semiconductor analyst at Dataquest. RISC chips are one-third to two-thirds the size of processors based around the Intel x86 architecture. Thus, all things being equal, RISC makers can produce more chips out of the same fixed set of materials.

This is especially important because the chips have to be fairly cheap to fit into set-top boxes, Brookwood added.

Senior writer Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.