| Madison, Wis. As the consumer market's interest in digital TV expands from large-screen sets in the living room to portable TVs in notebook computers, cars and mobile phones, silicon development activities are heating up. |
At a time when the emerging DVB-H standard is luring chip vendors into the fledgling cell phone TV market, Zarlink Semiconductor (Ottawa) is going retro. The company has introduced what it calls "the industry's smallest package and lowest-power-consumption" portable digital TV chip compliant with the established DVB-T standard.
Designed for mobile-PC and portable-TV applications, the demodulation chip operates at less than 300 milliwatts in a typical application or 270 mW in a lower-power mode. Its package measures 7 x 7 mm and thus consumes half the printed-circuit-board area of the industry standard, according to Zarlink.
The company also plans to release a separate DVB-T demodulation chip, capable of digital TV reception under continuous-movement conditions for automotive applications, sometime in the next few weeks.
Even as Zarlink sticks with DVB-T for now, many startups and leading chip vendors alike are jockeying to grab headlines for their DVB-H-based TV-on-mobile solutions. They include DiBcom, founded in 2000; Motorola, Philips Semiconductors, STMicrolectronics and Texas Instruments.
DVB-H is a handheld-application derivative of DVB-T. First-generation DVB-H silicon, scheduled for a broad-based launch in 2006, is expected initially to be backward-compatible with DVB-T and thus could pose a competitive threat to offerings based on the older spec.
But if a volume market for DVB-H chips takes a couple of years to develop, as some industry watchers speculate, then Zarlink's strategy could prove prescient. Applications for gear based on the earlier spec have been quietly growing in Europe in recent months.
Germany's Micronas is similarly betting on DVB-T, with a family of demodulaors designed for applications ranging from "simple portable [standard] to advanced portable and mobile reception," said Wim Renirie, the Micronas general manager responsible for its design center in Holland. Micronas is "strongly gaining market share from the two major competitors Zarlink and STMicroelectronics," Renirie said.
According to his definition, portable reception means that a device working at site A will resume receiving the DTV signal when moved to site B. Mobile reception, by contrast, implies continued reception at speed for example, in a car moving up to 200 km/hour with the appropriate diversity receivers. Renirie said Micronas promotes the diversity concept for advanced portable and mobile use by combining two demodulators' input signals via the Maximum Ratio Combining algorithm. "This results in higher Doppler performance and better reception quality," he said.
According to Peter Coe, DVB marketing manager at Zarlink, the PC TV chip segment of the DVB-T-based portable DTV market is expected to more than double this year, to "1 million to 1.5 million units." Zarlink, the current market share leader in DVB-T demodulation, hopes to grab at least 40 percent of the PC TV segment, Coe said.
Micronas is similarly bullish on PC TV. Predicting that DTV will become a standard feature for multimedia notebooks, Micronas' Renirie said the combined market for DVB-T cards and DVB-T USB sticks currently around 700,000 units a year will grow to 6 million DVB-T notebooks in 2010.
Power down, quality up
Attempts at mobile, portable TV proved a dismal failure in the analog era, observed Kees Joosse, business development manager for business-line personal-entertainment solutions at Philips Semiconductors. The analog TV tuners were power-hungry and clunky, and "the quality of the system was not good enough to provide a pleasant viewing experience," he said. With the advent of digital TV, Joosse said, "crystal-clear pictures and more services are fulfilling customers' expectations."
Indeed, any digital TV modulation chip touting mobility must meet accepted technical requirements for power consumption and signal reception, said Chris Carter, managing director at the Digital TV Consultancy (Windsor, England).
Zarlink says its ZL10355, at 300 mW, fits the bill. Lower power consumption obviously means less drain on PC batteries; but, more important, a demodulator that burns less battery juice is also less likely to burn PC TV users' fingers when they touch the modular USB dongle, Coe noted. "The less area there is for integrating the PC TV chip, the less room there is to dissipate power," he said, so a DVB-T USB stick "can get really hot."
The ZL10355 has an in-chip state machine that automatically hunts for and reacquires signals when a user with a portable DTV receiver moves to a new position, "without using up a CPU cycle on a PC," Coe said. Asked how the new chip handles continuous movement, Coe said it can receive DTV signals at "an urban speed of 50 km/hour." Continuous reception for in-vehicle applications will be addressed by the follow-on chip slated to debut soon.
The most obvious applications for standard DVB-T demodulators are portable consumer appliances that combine DVD capability with DTV reception, said Micronas' Renirie.
Carter of the Digital TV Consultancy agreed. "In the short term, no one is going to carry around a portable device just to watch broadcast TV, so [the TV] would have to be an additional feature to something that's already got a suitably sized screen, such as a portable DVD player," Carter said. But he cautioned that "the rest of the system also has to be low power." The rub is that "today there are not any really low-power [audio/video] decoders on the market."
Zarlink's near-term vision for portable DTV skews toward the model of the smallish set-top boxes currently used to convert a second household TV, such as one in the bedroom, into a digital TV receiver. As more European countries roll out DTV broadcast, the demand for such converter boxes is expected to soar.
In fact, the DTV Consultancy's Carter predicted that the fixed domestic set-top-box market may prove to be the biggest market for low-power DVB-T demodulators, largely because of lower-power mandates like the European Union's Stand-by Initiative or the Energy Star program in the United States.
With such directives in mind, Zarlink's chip provides a sleep-mode pin that is said to reduce the power requirement a thousandfold when the device is not in use.
The ZL10355 provides a transport stream output and a two-wire control bus, which is the typical glueless interface for a set-top-box decoder. More PC-friendly interfaces, such as USB, PCI and PCI Express, will be integrated in future devices, according to Coe.
DVB-H vs. DVB-T
Companies such as Philips Semiconductors and STMicroelectronics are similarly counting on their DVB-H solutions to compete effectively on the basis of their miserly power draw.
Conceding that the portable DTV market is still small, Philips' Joosse predicted that it will boom in the near future "with the introduction of DVB-H, [which was] specifically designed for reception on handheld devices." Among the various markets for portable DTV devices, Joosse said, "clearly, the cell phone market is by far the biggest."
Bob Krysiak, marketing director at ST's home, personal and communications division, predicted the portable-DTV market "will evolve from the convergence of the application platforms in the mobile phone and the technologies and business models deployed in the set-top box." Krysiak said ST will base its low-power DVB-T/DVB-H solution around its Nomadik platform, which is "already designed for the portable market."
When asked to compare Philips' portable DTV solution with Zarlink's chip, Joosse said, "Our device does support both DVB-H and DVB-T, so we are really ready for the new wave of DTV applications in handheld devices." He added, "Our power figures are the same as Zarlink's" for the DVB-T mode but "far better [lower] in DVB-H mode."
Zarlink itself is not ignoring the potential DVB-H market; DVB-H development is factored into its road map. But Coe said it's too early to determine whether Zarlink will focus solely on the mobile-phone market for DVB-H or pursue a broader-based approach that will include PC TV and automotive applications.