SANTA CLARA, California -- Dutch chipmaker Philips Semiconductors, a leader in 8051-based 8-bit microcontrollers, is developing a range of 32-bit/16-bit microcontrollers based on the ARM7TDMI "Thumb" core from ARM Holdings plc that should be available before the end of 2002.
The company plans to sample the first examples from a forthcoming family of microcontrollers in the fourth quarter and go into volume production in the first quarter of 2003, according to Geoff Lees, the director of marketing for the microcontroller business line at Philips.
Lees reckons the company will gain a big commercial advantage, in performance and price, from making the devices using Philips' 0.18-micron embedded flash process technology announced in March of this year. The company is introducing a couple of parts initially, one aimed at automotive applications, the other at dial-up networking and TCP/IP processing. Lees said that both would be under $10 per unit and that he expected prices to go quickly to about $5 in volumes of about 50,000 units.
"Philips has been an ARM licensee for some time but in the ASIC and SoC areas. This will be the first time we've provided an ARM-based microcontroller. The increasing NRE [non-recurring engineering] cost of ASIC and custom design is favoring standard products more and more, and a lot of our customers want to use microcontroller-based designs for initial product launches with a view to migrating to an ASIC solution for price reduction later," said Lees.
Philips has provided chips for its so-called "Optimized UMTS Philips Solution" for 3G mobile communications based on ARM7 and ARM9 cores.
However, Philips is not the first into the ARM microcontroller market having been beaten by Atmel Corp. of San Jose, California, by several years.
"Ours is the first truly integrated solution. Earlier solutions have not had integrated flash. Our 0.18-micron flash process allows up to 256-kbyte of flash and up to 64-kbyte of SRAM on the chip," said Lees. "Also we've developed a 128-bit wide flash block which allows the ARM device to read four 32-bit words in a single cycle. Other offerings with embedded flash require multiple wait-states.
The early devices will come in a basic form with relatively few peripherals, with 128-kbytes of flash memory, 32-kbytes or 64-kbytes of RAM, serial channels and programmable timers. A more advanced device will include a selection of analog peripherals and a CAN interface, aimed at automotive applications.
"After that I would think a device with 802.11 capability would be pretty high on the agenda," said Lees.
Lees said that the embedded flash memory is guaranteed for 100,000 read-write cycles over the industrial temperature range but that automotive qualification was expected during 2003.
Such a number is relatively low and requires some thought to be applied to how the flash memory is used but Lees said that the endurance would improve with testing and that, in any case, Phili ps could add EEPROM to its process with zero impact.
The ARM processor core is expected to clock at more than 50-MHz. Although this is relatively low for an ARM7 in a 0.18-micron process Lees pointed out that the range had been optimised for low power consumption with the ARM core operating at 1.8-V and only the I/O being enabled to operate at 3.3-V. In addition the wait-states that other microcontrollers forced on their ARM cores made them operate less efficiently or more slowly.
Philips, expected to start bringing our microcontrollers based on the higher performance ARM9 core within 12 to 18 months.