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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

TSMC rolls out 55nm process shrink

The world's largest fab, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, is starting production of a 55nm shrink this month.
This is a 90% linear-shrink process from 65nm including I/O and analogue circuits (this is a key factor) to give significant die cost savings over 65nm with the same speed and 10 to 20% lower power consumption.
Because the 55nm process is a direct shrink, designers can use existing libraries and port their 65nm designs with minimal risk and effort. The 55nm logic family includes general purpose (GP) and consumer (GC) platforms and initial production of the 55GP begins this quarter, with Nvidia and Altera expected to be lead customers, followed later in the year by 55GC. A shuttle service with wafers from multiple customers will start in May.
“TSMC’s half-node process, including 55nm, is the quickest and simplest way for our customers to be cost competitive in the rapidly changing marketplace,” said Jason Chen, vice president of corporate development of TSMC. “TSMC continues to combine manufacturing superiority with a comprehensive design ecosystem to support customers of any size, from startups to multinational giants.”

The company has been offering half-node processes for six technology generations starting from 0.35um.
45nm test devices are already running at TSMC and at IBM for production next year.

Personal media player chip revenues peak

Despite a doubling in the market for MP3 and personal media players (PMPs), the revenue for chip makers will actually fall, according to new report by market researchers iSuppli.
Global PMP/MP3 player unit shipments will rise to 268.6 million units in 2011, expanding at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 13 percent from 128.7 million units in 2005, iSuppli predicts. In 2007, player shipments are expected to rise to 216.9 million units, up 21.8 percent from 178.1 million in 2006.
But prices will fall, with lower growth in revenues. Global PMP/MP3 factory revenue will rise to $21.5bn by 2011, expanding at a CAGR of 7.4 percent from $14bn in 2005.
It's even worse for the chip makers, as revenue will actually fall over that time, even though volumes go through the roof.
At the heart of every PMP/MP3 player is system-on-chip (SoC) controller, supplied by companies like SigmaTel, nVidia and Actions. Despite the increase in player shipments, strong price erosion will result in a decline in controller revenues from a peak of $749 million this year to $526 million in 2011. This is the result of increased competition from a growing and diverse number of suppliers including large, broad-line suppliers like Texas Instruments and Freescale, fabless Taiwan perennials like Sunplus and ALi and newcomer startups like Rockchip, Anyka, and Chipnuts.
"A major driving factor behind this growth is the fact that PMP/MP3 players take advantage of the Internet more than other consumer electronic devices, giving users the ability to quickly and easily sample, acquire and share media,” said Chris Crotty, senior analyst for consumer electronics at iSuppli. “Other reasons for the rapid market expansion include the expanding catalog of available content and component cost reductions that are making the players more affordable for consumers.”

In parallel with the rise in PMP/MP3 shipments is the expansion of the market for paid digital content used on these and other platforms. The worldwide broadband digital paid video market will expand to $4.5bn in 2010, up from just $300m in 2006. Meanwhile, iSuppli forecasts the broadband music market will grow to $5bn in revenue by 2010, up from $1.6bn in 2006. Still, some challenges remain for PMPs/MP3 players, including longer replacement cycles due to removable memory and stronger competition from media-capable mobile phones.

Bigger is cheaper for Zigbee

Fabless chip designer Jennic in Sheffield has developed a reference design for Zigbee low power embedded wireless nodes that costs well under $5.
This includes the cost of the Jennic JN5139 wireless microcontroller, a high performance PCB antenna design, and all other ancillary components, and now allows the use of wireless connections for devices such as thermostats and light switches to on installation costs when compared to wired solutions.
The sub $5 price point is achieved by making things larger. Jennic has eliminated the antenna and RF balun (the other key component in the RF path) components by using a larger, balanced antenna printed on the circuit board, requiring no additional components to match the chip's 200 ohm resistive differential RF interface. This gives a 1.5dB improvement in receive sensitivity and transmit power along with higher gain (around 4dBi) than a ceramic antenna (approximately 1.5dBi) and gives the node a range of up to 1km (or helps keep the power down for shorter distances).
Similarly for the crystal, Jennic has used a HC49U surface mounted package measuring approximately 12.5x3.7x4.2mm high, which costs about half the price of equivalent miniature devices. The increased physical size of the resonating element gives higher performance - the equivalent series resistance is smaller, resulting in lower system phase noise and faster oscillator start-up times, saving on overall system power consumption.
But even with these, the two-layer board still measures only 49x25mm to keep the cost of the board to a minimum. The ZigBee/IEEE802.15.4 design is freely available from Jennic's support website -

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Your credit card number is worth just $1

Look over there - it's the US that hosts the vast majority of hackers, says Internet security company Symantec - and they are selling your credit card number for a single measly dollar.
Symantec's 11th Internet Security Threat Report, based on information from 40,000 sensors deployed in more than 180 countries, shows the US with 31 percent of malicious activity originating from its networks, followed by China with 10 percent. The report also outlines the type and rise in activity being conducted. Symantec is reporting a 29 percent increase totaling more than 6 million distinct bot-infected computers worldwide during the second half of 2006 compared to the first half.
Of the type of information being stolen, Symantec reports private information such as government-issued identity numbers and credit cards is increasingly being sought after. Armed with this information, Symantec officials say cybercriminals turnaround and sell these credit card numbers from anywhere between USD$1 - $6, while identity numbers are sold from anywhere between USD$14 - $18.

ARM monkeys around with FPGA core

It may seem like a strange joke for an engineer - When is an instruction set architecture not an instruction set architecture? Well, according to ARM, when it’s a ‘lightweight profile’.
ARM has developed a core, the Cortex M1, specifically targeted at the FPGA market, but is mucking around with the ISA - something that is usually sacrosanct
By using a three stage von Neuman architecture in the core, the Cortex M1 core takes up less space than the previous ARM7 core already available on Actel FPGAs.
This will also be aimed at large OEM equipment makers to take ARM licenses directly, rather than through an ASIC company or chip design.
The new core will be compatible with M3 cores used in low cost microcontrollers and high volume ASICs. It uses "a lightweight profile of the Thumb 2 instruction set," said Dominic Pajak, product manager for the processor division at ARM. This means that existing 32bit ARM code will not run on it, and 16bit Thumb 1 code will need additional 32bit instructions. New Thumb 2 code will run with no problems, and real time operating systems such as uClinux, Nucleus and ThreadX will also run on the core. So for new designs, that's fine, and obviously where ARM is aiming this, but existing code will have to be recompiled for the core.
This is important as there is lots of ARM code on ARM7 microcontrollers and in existing telecoms chips using ARM7 cores that could move to the new low cost FPGA families such as Altera's Cyclone 3 - see below.
The three stage von Neuman architecture, rather than a five stage Harvard architecture like other cores in the ARM family, reduces the size of the core dramatically to less than an 8051 or ARM7 core says Pajak. But this also means it runs at a relatively slow 72MHz, although this compares to just 25MHz for the ARM7 in an FPGA.
It is currently available on Actel's Fusion and proAsic families, taking up 20% of a 1m gate part or a third of a 600,000 gate Fusion part that includes analogue elements such as analogue to digital converters. A version for the low power Igloo family is expected at the end of the year.
The core is already part of the Actel design flow, supplied as a configurable black box that is tied to a particular part via a unique identification number and the core is included in the price of the chip without having to have a licence with ARM.
"The money comes out of the license we pay to ARM," said Vaughn Williams, managing director for Actel in Europe.
The core will be available on Xilinx and Altera parts, but only through direct deals between ARM and large OEM equipment companies. "For Xilinx and Altera users, ARM will license the RTL to selected OEMs, and currently we would license to the OEMs directly," said Pajak.

Altera backs low cost, high volume FPGAs for 65nm

Altera is using its low cost, high volume FPGA family as its route into production on the latest 65nm technology. Instead of trying to use one process for both the high performance and low cost families, it has designed the low cost Cyclone 3 family on TSMC's low power process.
Cyclone 3 parts (above left) started shipping this month and provides 5000 logic elements (around 30,000 gates) for as little as $4 in high volumes, which is great as most designs are between 40,000 and 100,000 gates, so most designs will fit into chips that are $10 to $20. The family runs up to 120,000 logic elements at the high end, although there is no pricing on the high end devices, expect these to be between $150 and $200. The high density parts overlap significantly with the higher performance Stratix III family which was announced last year but has still to go into production on 65nm, but the difference is mainly in the performance and the cost.
Arch competitor Xilinx has been shipping its high end Virtex 5 FPGAs on 65nm for the last six months.
Using the low power 65nm process, with power consumption as low as 0.5W which is targeting it to embedded applications such as portable software defined radio systems and low cost pico basestation designs, says Robert Blake, Altera's vice president of product marketing (above right). The family includes up to 4Mbits of memory and up to 288 digital signal processing (DSP) multipliers, with the whole family rolling out over the next six months.
Using a low power process has hit the performance of the parts, allowing LVDS up to 875MHz and 200MHz DDR2 memory interfaces, half that of the Stratix III family.

Artimi wins more funding

Hooray! Cambridge-based high speed wireless chip designer Artimi has raised more funding, albeit just $5m. This brings its round B funding to a total of $31.5m, and a total of $50m. Whether this is enough to bring a consumer chip company to market is another question, but the company is full of great chip designers from the former VirataGlobespan, so it needs UK support.
The latest funding comes from a new investor Khosla Ventures, founded by Vinod Khosla, one of the world's most influential venture capitalists.
"Almost anyone who uses digital cameras has probably wished for a faster, easier way to get pictures to a computer or printer, and that need gets greater with newer, more powerful devices coming every day," he said. "Artimi's breakthrough embedded technology offers consumers ultra simple connectivity for digital cameras, phones, media players, and more."

Artimi has demonstrated next-generation Bluetooth over ultra-wideband (UWB) for mobile handsets at the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona and a Wireless USB digital camera reference design at the Photo Marketing Association conference in Las Vegas, and claims to have some large consumer companies in the pipline as customers - I cetainly hope so! If these end products can get to market this year there is a chance of the company succeeding as the chips go into serious volumes in 2008, which is abviously the plan (see below). Otherwise, or if there is a hiccup, it will be a major struggle.
"With more than a billion portable consumer electronic devices shipped each year, and consumers' need to transfer media-rich content, the market opportunity for wireless connectivity is very large," said Colin Macnab, CEO of Artimi. "Artimi's support for both Certified Wireless USB and next-generation Bluetooth means manufacturers don't have to choose one technology or another for their products. We've already gained significant market traction with brand-name companies in the areas of storage, digital cameras and mobile handsets, and this follow-on Series B investment from Khosla Ventures further validates our dual-mode technology strategy. This additional funding also allows us to support volume production through 2008 and stay focused on building the business."

Artimi's other investors include Accel Partners, Amadeus Capital Partners, Index Ventures, Oak Investment Partners, and Bank of Scotland Growth Equity.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Kafka-esque threat to IP video business

A strange story that could almost have been written by Kaftka comes from the Register on the importance of bandwidth caps on Internet services.
John Stith, a Comcast subscriber in Colorado, has had bizarre conversations with his Internet service provider (ISP), who says don't go over the download limit or we will cut you off without notice. What's the limit? We can't tell you? What's your name? I can't say. Can I speak to a supervisor? No. When he complains, he is told it's a prank call, then that it's not policy, but then is referred to the 'security' department who give him the same threat to cut him off.
Why does this matter? Because IP video sees this route to homes through the ISP as a new route for video distribution - see the stories on here from IBC in September form companies like Amino. Not only do the ISPs have a cap (which stops the video model) but those with 'unlimited' internet have invisible caps.
You could argue that this is in the fair use policy, but one large and growing part of the industry (Google, Youtube, Apple TV, TivO et al) are all pushing exactly this capability, which will come head to head with the service providers before long.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Lynuxworks launches RTOS for FPGA and multicore

Real time operating system vendor Lynuxworks is launching version for multi-core processors, soft processors on FPGAs and tools based on the Eclipse open framework.
“Multicore is already a reality but it wasn’t until recently the tools were available to make it available to almost everyone,” said Gurjot Singh, CEO of Lynuxworks in an interview with the Embedded Blog

The multicore version, LynxOS 5.0, will run on Intel and PowerPC cores and be available in June, with ARM to follow later, said Singh, and will support up to 32 processors in a symmetric multi-processing (SMP) format. Support for different processor cores on one chip will also follow later.
Its latest Linux based operating system, BlueCat Linux Micro Edition (BlueCat-ME) gives full support of the Linux 2.6. kernel. BlueCat-ME, available today, also makes LynuxWorks the first embedded RTOS provider to enable developers to work with Linux on both PowerPC and MicroBlaze architectures and its own LynxOS operating system for PowerPC.
This allows developers to choose whether to use an embedded PowerPC core in the FPGA fabric or use the same OS on a Xilinx part without the PowerPC, or to partition a design across the two processors in a single chip.
BlueCat-ME also offers the benefits of the latest Linux distribution to developers using non-memory management unit (non-MMU) architectures for their embedded systems for the first time.
This is part of a significant move to more processors on FPGAs for embedded designs.
The new tools will be based on the Eclipse Calisto version 3.2 framework. The next version, Europa, is due in June and new versions of the tools will follow three months after that, says Singh.
“We are seeing Eclipse is taking the notice of embedded designers and Eclipse is finding that embedded is becoming more important,” he said.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Is Exradia snake oil?

Is the 'launch' of Exradia not all it seems? To me it has all the hall marks of a pump and dump operation - a fancy PR agency (Kinross & Render), an area that is of concern to consumers (mobile, protecting yourself from radio waves), big launches at trade shows (3GSM and CeBit), an odd structure and an odd past. All of these ring warning bells for me.
For Exradia (funded by wealthy private individuals, says the CEO) is actually a subsidiary of a US company that has been trying to sell this technology for nearly a decade now, including a joint venture to make phones in Germany. All of this isn't secret, but it's not highlighted.
So I had a long chat with the CEO, and unfortunately I am not convinced on the technology either. The technology is a low power, low frequency field that is meant to 'break up' the regular radio pulses that could be the cause of problems from mobile phones. Yes, several studies have pointed to the regularity of the pulses as the potential cause of problems. But the field does not stop the effect of the pulses - this is absolutely not like noise cancelling where you can cancel out the wave, but additive - but it will reduce the amplitude of the signal (but it's low power, so not by much). That is the only minor value I can see in the technology, and by the lack of success so far, I think the industry agrees with me.
The scary thing is the focus on the legal side - ie, if mobile phone makers don't take appropriate steps to minimise any effects they could be liable to future law suits. 'Is this the tobacco of the future' is the question the company promotes, and I feel there is an element of scaremongering in both the pitch to consumers and the pitch to the industry. Then the question comes down to how effective this technology is, and that has to go through properly organised, validated medical technology trials, NOT the university analyses that the company relies on.

Below: A GSM phone output
Right: Using Exradia technology to disrupt the signal

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Rollable screens in cell phones!

Love these pictures of phones with rollable screens (see multiple stories previously) that expand out from the basic phone housing. The rollable screen from Polymer Image is starting production at Innos in Southampton and could be used for cell phones.

If you think that's weird, Chinese phone maker ZTE has developed a concept phone with the same kind of idea - it used a rollable screen that unrolls in teh shape of a fan. Fantastic, you might say (sorry, couldn't resist!)

The latest semiconductor market analysis from Future Horizons points to the latest restatements of chip makers and the lowest month-on-month growth in ten years, which for the month of Christmas is not a good sign.
"Depending on whether you see the glass half full or half empty, the market is simply pausing or confirmation that the era of strong growth is over," said Malcolm Penn, CEO of Future Horizons. "The only real certainty in the semiconductor industry is its ability to constantly deliver uncertainty, and clearly Q4’s results were a test of vision and faith."