National Semi unveils chip for info appliances

National Semiconductor Corp. on Wednesday unveiled an embedded processor designed specifically for information appliances ranging from digital set-top boxes to personal Internet access devices.

National designed the Geode GX2 processor specifically for information appliances by making the chip as powerful as possible without crossing limits it had set for both power consumption and price, said Yves Gourvennec, GX2 marketing manager, in a telephone interview. Because the company wanted to keep the cost of the processor low, National also chose to manufacture the processor using a 0.15-micron process, slightly less advanced and less expensive than the 0.13-micron process used in mobile processors from consumer notebook vendors, he said. "In the (information appliance) space, price is very important; we don't want to move too fast to 0.13 because its too expensive," Gourvennec said. The GX2 will be moved to the 0.13-micron process in 2003, he said.

National said the processor, unveiled at the Microprocessor Forum in San Jose, California, is aimed at four specific markets -- thin clients, consumer access devices, digital set-top boxes, and residential gateways, Gourvennec said.

The company already has a strong presence in the thin client market, which refers to devices in which the majority of the processing is done on the server side. These are typically used by hotels, schools and government, Gourvennec said.

The consumer access device market refers to either tethered or wireless devices typically used for Web browsing, e-mail access and streaming video, he said. Set-top boxes are the most well-established of the four markets. This market includes devices such as satellite and digital television receivers. The fourth market, residential gateways, covers boxes that lie between a home network and a broadband service provider, he said. These gateway boxes will take broadband information, ranging from audio and video to simple Web pages, and dispatch it to computers throughout the house, he said.

National also designed the GX2 with power-saving features, to the extent that individual components are powered down when not in use, Gourvennec said. "We can basically turn on and off the graphic controller or even the CPU, based on usage," he said. The processor's input and output can also be powered down. The processor runs at only 1 volt, but the I/O runs at 3 volts, so each time the chip sends information, it uses more voltage.

The GX2 will be available in a 200MHz version, a 400MHz version and a version in between the two, Gourvennec said. The company will also offer a reference platform with support for both SDRAM (Synchronous Dynamic RAM) and DDR SDRAM (Double Data Rate SDRAM) to partners planning on building set-top boxes, so they can see the processor in action before committing to it, Gourvennec said. Whereas the DDR version will be useful for high-end devices, National decided to offer the SDRAM version for low-end, portable devices.

The GX2 will be available with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows XP, Windows XP Embedded and Windows CE operating systems and several versions of the Linux operating system, Gourvennec said.

National expects to produce the GX2 in volume in the first half of next year, the company said. All versions of the GX2 will be priced below US$50 per unit in large quantities.

The Microprocessor Forum, in San Jose, runs from Monday, Oct. 15, through Friday, Oct. 19. More information can be found on the Web at http://www.mdronline.com/mpf/index.html/.

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