Philips Semiconductors said it developed a new, sub-$50 silicon chip that can power the many services that cable operators want to deliver through advanced digital set-tops.
The "PNX 8500 Nexperia Home Entertainment Engine" combines media processing and CPU processing-heretofore handled separately-into a single device, said Mark Samuel, Nexperia marketing director at Philips.
"This is a major breakthrough," he said. Cable operators would be able to offer a panoply of services-interactive television, video-on-demand, MP3 downloads, streaming video, personal video recording, advanced electronic program guides, shopping, high-speed Internet access, gaming, video electronic-mail and IP telephony-through the new chip, Philips said.
Those consumer services are part of the next generation of specifications coming from companies like News Corp., Canal Plus S.A., America Online Inc. and AT & T Broadband, Samuel said.
"Since they are integrating a media processor with the CPU, that's the direction the industry needs to go, because of all the new services we'll be able to offer," said AT & T Broadband vice president of technology Jim Wood.
Said Samuel: "It meets that demand and preserves bandwidth for future capabilities."
The chip contains two processors: a 150-megahertz MIPS RISC CU processor to run the operating system and control tasks, and Philips'200-MHz TriMedia 200 processor for software-driven media processing.
Other functions-such as MPEG-2 (Moving Picture Expert Group) decoding; two-dimensional drawing; 3-D, game-quality graphics; and universal serial bus (USB) peripherals-are part of the chip's hardware.
"We've freed up 80 percent of the processing power," said Samuel, by integrating a good deal of functionality into the hardware base. This is a key element for operators who want the flexibility to deploy future services.
"People are leaving 50 percent or more processing power for future upgrades."
The strength of the product also means that operators or consumers won't have to switch out boxes every few years, he said, because the unused processing power can be used for future applications.
The unutilized power could be harnessed for emerging audio standards like Sony's "ATRAC3" and Microsoft's "Windows Media," or for MPEG-4 video-streaming standards, Philips said.
The company said the chip's MPEG-2 decoder can handle high-definition television (HDTV) MPEG-2 streams in all 18 ATSC formats and convert high-definition formats to standard definition.
The chip also includes the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' "IEEE-1394" or "fire-wire" interface, which allows for 5C copy protection to distribute program material to other consumer digital-video devices.
AT & T Broadband will use the Nexperia product in the Philips Digital Networks set-tops it agreed to purchase two months ago. Philips Semiconductor and Philips Digital are sister companies.
"The chip will play a key role in our strategy to transform the set-top box into a residential entertainment center, offering network operators and consumers alike an entirely new television-viewing experience," said Philips Digital Networks president Jos Swillens.
Wood said lower-scale versions of the chip are running in the Philips box deployed in the former MediaOne Group Inc. system in Jacksonville, Fla.
"We've seen speeds of streaming media, MPEG-4, of 750 kilobits while the box is doing other things," Wood said.
The new chip will allow consumers to look at more than one MPEG video stream at a time. For instance, a user would be able to simultaneously watch TV and participate in a videoconference.
Samuel said the Nexperia chip set has enough processing power to do the decoding work for two boxes-an important consideration, now that cable operators are deploying 1.2 to 1.4 digital set-tops per home.
The chip sells for $48 in shipments above 100,000, Samuel said. Philips estimates that stacking the chip's components separately would cost operators between $100 and $150.
It contains 32 million transistors and is more complex than Intel's Pentium III processor, Philips said.
The PNX 8500 will work with the major operating systems and middleware being developed by OpenTV Inc., Microsoft Corp., Liberate Technologies and Canal Plus U.S. Technologies, Philips said.