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  Digital Consumer Electronics Driving New Capabilities, Markets for Chipmakers
By Lane Mason, Denali Software.  Lane can be reached at lane@denalisoft.com

After years, if not decades, or hype and chatter, in various incarnations and permutations, and viewed from many different angles and interests, the concept of a new “digital electronics era in the home” is finally starting to come into a sharper focus.  This was given another kick forward at the recent Intel Developers Forum (IDF) in San Francisco, where “The Digital Home” was a major, if not THE major theme of the show.   But, as with many things electronic, Intel was not the first, but the world only begins to sit up and take notice when Intel anoints a trend, and encapsulates it in their comprehensive, and, admittedly Intel-centric, World Vision.

We are now within reach of something that has been gestating for a long time, as consumer-driven digital electronics marketplace converges in hundreds of millions of homes over then next decade, and the disparate pieces are destined to play together in symphonic harmony.

Let’s Meet at Kevin’s Place
But there have been many other indications that things were coming together, increasingly frequently over the past year or two.  Very low-cost consumer PCs have been around for several years, and the average system prices have fallen into the very affordable (“Buy two, get one free.”) under-$500 range.  Wirelessness is fast becoming ubiquitous, in phones and pagers, PDAs, and laptops.  Big screen TVs, despite their ‘prohibitively high costs’ are being snapped up at a rapid pace.  Collaborative gaming has also been around for a few years, all stitched together by the Internet. 

Earlier this year, a whole new generation of game consoles from Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony, was defined and will be rolled out over the next 6-9 months…wirelessly tied to large screen digital HDTVs, internet enabled, and with an order of magnitude more powerful visuals than today’s state-of-the-art game machines.

Things are coming together fast in the connected world of Digital Consumer Home electronic systems: cell phones, large form-factor HDTVs, MP3 players and integrated home-auto audio, mobile computation, advanced gaming platforms, internet and wireless tethers, global reach.  It sometimes seems as if all these systems have a same notion:  “Let’s all meet at Kevin’s Place.”…and hook up.

Seas of Storage

Everyone of a certain age has a collection of various generations of vinyl records, maybe 4-track or 8-track tapes, audio cassettes, and CDs…plus maybe now an MP3 player; Everyone of a certain age has a library of video tapes and DVDs, and their associated video players.  Our voracious appetites are unlimited. We want, instantly accessible, every movie we’ve ever enjoyed and every song we liked.  Complete prepackaged episodes of favorite TV serials are popping off the shelves like hotcakes: Seinfeld, Friends, Star Trek.  Blockbuster and Netflix are not fast enough in their access; we want instant downloads from satellites. We have gone berserk in accumulating ‘content’, and when one hardware medium or another is surpassed by the next, we hardly take note of it. We continue.  And although there is a lot to be said for the low cost of CD and DVD storage media, silicon storage is certainly taking it fair share of the MB itself, in DSCs and MP3 players (see Table 1).  A single MP3 player can now be used for auto, home and portable entertainment…no need for differing formats, and a host of search and play and selection possibilities not available in any generation of player before.

Table 1.  Consumer Electronics is Driving Large Memory Usage (Source:  iSuppli, Micron Technology, Denali Software)


Core Logic makes the Video Images and Sounds Happen

The processor chips that power these systems are highly graphics-oriented and optimized, like the Cell Processor from IBM, Sony and Toshiba…which will show up in the Playstation 3 next year, and, so the architects hope, in many other high bandwidth, high performance applications.

The memories that are dragged along, to support low power strategies, non-volatility, and lowest-possible-cost data and media storage, and are qualitatively different from what has been available and offered before.  NAND flash, which today sells for as low as 5 cents per MB (see Figure 1), is now cheaper than DRAM.  Mobile DRAMs can operate effectively with as much as 95% power reductions from standard power parts.  Low power chip features once adopted in the exclusive province of the LP Roadmap, are finding their way into the mainstream.  “Mobility” invariably means batteries and low power.  Hardware and software are both playing a critical role in power reduction while not compromising performance.

Figure 1.  Consumer Electronics Driving DRAM and NAND Price Declineschart2
 In the storage space where silicon solutions play an important or even a dominant role, here are some of the issues and battlefronts as defined today, and what we might expect a few years hence:

RAM vs NV Memories
SRAMs and DRAMs, whose fast read-write capabilities are necessary in most electronic systems, can be big power consumers in both the active and standby modes.  Leakage currents kill talk time.  Although the R-W performance and other functional limitations of silicon non-volatile memories…NOR and NAND Flash, or even EEPROMs…cannot compare to RAMs, systems designers are judicious in deciding how much RAM and how much NVM they need, and every effort is made to substitute NV for RAM wherever possible.  Memory growth in successive generations is now almost exclusively in the NOR or NAND flash, while the RAM portions remains rather static

NAND flash vs HDD
If Rip Van Winkle would have gone to sleep in 1992, but had some idea how the battle between silicon flash memories was shaping up against magnetic rotating hard drive memories before he took his nap, he would have awakened in 2005 to find things remarkably unchanged.  Of course, the MB or GB densities achievable would have grown markedly, and costs/MB had all gone downward in a similar fashion.  And, sure, power, ‘shock capacity’, and form factor were all issues or greater or lesser importance in this application of another. But the basic battle lines were the same, weighing the fixed cost of the HDD mechanics (and its lower cost/MB), against flash’s lower fixed cost and higher cost/MB.   Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the MP3 player marketplace, where the First High Ground was claimed by Apples iPod, with a HDD holding 10000 songs, but which as soon attacked by the minions of flash-based, more limited capacity players costing ¼ as much but with enough song capacity for most users…which was a few hundred.  Now, just this week, Apple has gone back to Samsung, the leading flash memory supplier (and who has both flash based and HDD based MP3 payers), and placed a huge order for NAND flash memories, in order to beef up its own low-cost MP3 player portfolio.  Where flash and HDD crossed at 3-4GB systems yesterday, flash seems destined to rule the roost below about 6-8GB tomorrow.

NAND flash memory storage and DRAM capacity increases and shipment increase will drive to total storage capacity of semiconductor memory.

Standalone memories; embedded memories
In the natural evolution of chip complexes, chipsets and systems, higher levels of chip integration have been a great means of improving system performance, reducing power and reducing system size.  This is nothing new today, but we’ve seen that in some applications, the ‘transistor budget’ so exceeds system functional demand, that formerly standalone memories are being draw onto the main logic chip (MPU, APU, GPU), thereby reducing power requirements to drive signals off chip through packages and leads, and across board traces.  Integration is making everything more wonderful.

Figure 2.  Flash Memory NAND and DRAM Shipped Storage Capacity is Soaring.

Power down!! 

Power has been a check-off item for chips since the very beginning of the industry.  There has always been a small niche for which low power was imperative (calculators and watches, for example).  But, for the mainstream market, plugged into the wall outlet, it was always a secondary design priority.  Not so any more.  You either design for low power from the start, or face performance degradation problems at high clocks rates down the road.  Performance trends and demands, along with basic device physics, have pushed system performance up against a wall.  For laptops and cell phones, standby memory power is a significant part of the power drain and delimiter of battery life and operating (talk) time.

Furthermore, elements of the ‘low-power’ memory roadmap…features that were specifically developed and used to power reduce…are finding they way into the mainstream, standard power part.

Portability-driven space constrained packaging

The cell phone is the most remarkable piece of silicon technology available, and, with the right ‘calling service plan’, can be had by the consumer and user, virtually for free.  But despite its often-low consumer cost, it harbors both an immense amount of current technology today, and is pushing the frontier in many technology directions at once, for the future.

One group of these changes is the made necessary by the need to ‘fit it all into an enclosure that is 30-70 cubic cm.’.  For the memory stack, which includes SRAM or DRAM, NOR flash and/or NAND flash, and in some cases a removable flash card or HDD, space constraints have caused the rapid evolution of high density packages, multichip packages, and changes in the production process that allow the manufacturer to ensure the quality and reliability of the devices without first packaging each chip individually before it is tested and ‘burned in’.  Most bare die offered by the industry today go into cell phones, and they suffer no apparent deficiencies in quality, reliability, performance when compared with the traditionally packaged chips.

Of course, with higher packing densities and chips sitting on top of each other, power issues are multiplied, so that this compression of technology requires a commensurate effort to reduce power drain by each chip.

Drive cost out

The consumer segment is famous for its high volumes of production and the low prices it demands of its suppliers.  This is as true in the consumer silicon area as anywhere else, and the high volumes drive both chip vendor interest in the business, and also open up an avenue to cost reduction through its natural scale economies.  Where many companies are competing for same volume business, if you do not find a way to cost reduce your product, someone else likely will…especially if the prize is a consumer silicon market of 10M, 100M or 1B units…not unheard of in the consumer space.

With regard to each of these technology and prices trends individually, and all of them combined, “10 in 10” is not an excessive expectation…a ten-fold improvement in price performance within ten years, is by no means an unreasonable expectation… and far less that the distance that the PC, that stalwart, long-in-the-tooth market-driver of the ‘80s and ‘90s, has itself come in the past decade.

We have much to look forward to in the Silicon Home, and from what we have seen so far, the limits of technology are undiminished from decades ago, though the industry is more expensive to play in and more mature in its structure.

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