SAN MATEO, Calif. Stream Machine, a fabless chip company, will start sampling within weeks its newest MPEG-2 audio/video codec chip based on ARC International Ltd.'s configurable microprocessor core.
The company, which styles itself as "the industry's only remaining independent source" for consumer MPEG-2 encoder chips, hopes to expand its presence on the consumer market for audio/video recorders, according to Brian Heuckroth, vice president of marketing at Stream Machine (San Jose, Calif.).
In the last several years, other fabless video chip companies with heavy investments in MPEG-2 encoding technologies have been snatched up by bigger chip companies. For example, GlobeSpan bought iCompression a year ago in a deal valued at about $400 million. And Broadcom reportedly paid $800 million to acquire VisionTech last fall. Most recently, LSI Logic Corp. and C-Cube Microsystems agreed to merge in a stock transaction worth approximately $87 8 million.
While the mergers and acquisitions validated MPEG-2 encoding as a hot consumer IC technology, it raises questions of pure-play digital video chip vendors' ability to sustain themselves in an increasingly cutthroat market.
According to Cahners In-Stat Group, worldwide shipments of consumer MPEG-2 encoder chips last year remained relatively small: only 781,000 units valued at $27.3 million were shipped. The research firm predicted, however, that the fledgling market would grow this year to 1.9 million units worth $45.2 million.
Last year C-Cube dominated total shipments, and most other major players are the semiconductor divisions of Japanese consumer electronics manufacturers. Stream Machine hopes to gain position against competitors that have not yet rolled out new-generation chips due to post-merger transitions. The company is pitching its ARC-based chip, called the SM2288, "as a highly integrated solution that outperforms all of our major competitors' ICs," Heuckroth said.
Stream Machine describes itself as being "focused on a broad range of digital home entertainment systems." In addition to rolling out its encoding IC-based reference designs for hard-disk drive-based personal video recorders and recordable optical disks, the company is also developing the "home media center," according to Heuckroth. Earlier this year, Stream Machine unveiled an X86-based Linux platform featuring a number of its software drivers. The platform is designed as a new category of home media center for the capture, storage and distribution of digital audio and video.
Still, Stream Machine is counting on the SM2288 encoder to drive sales and expand its market share. Unlike its MPEG competitors, the SM2288 is capable of real-time encoding for audio as well as video, with support for more modes and custom algorithms, the company said.
Through an on-chip digital signal processor, the SM2288 supports MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MP3 and Dolby Digital audio streams. T he chip is also designed to provide a range of bit rates for varying storage needs and video quality considerations, starting from 2 Mbits/second to 15 Mbits/s. Further, Stream Machine claims that the SM2288, capable of running at 1 watt at full resolution, has the smallest power consumption of any MPEG-2 encoder chip today, thus making it ideal for portable product applications like digital camcorders.
Much of the new chip's advanced features are a result of a hybrid architecture that integrates ARC's 32-bit programmable RISC core with hardware-assist blocks.
"Rather than running everything in firmware, we designed all the known algorithms to run in hardware. Meanwhile, the ARC core integrated on the chip is responsible for performing overall system control and the mux and demux functions," said Heuckroth. The new chip's hybrid architecture, together with a 0.18-micron fabrication process, allowed the SM2288 to achieve its low power consumption, he said.
Stream Machine chose the ARC core "becau se we've needed to get a deeper level of access to the CPU core and software IPs [intellectual properties]," said Heuckroth. That access was essential for Stream Machine's design of a hardware assist that would work better with the CPU core. To increase overall performance, Stream Machine also developed extensions to the ARC core, including instructions, new registers and custom interrupt vectors.
The chip, priced at $35 per unit in sampling quantities, will be marketed to first- and second-tier consumer OEMs in Japan and Europe that design personal video recorders, DVD and SVCD video playback/recording systems.
Further, through its family of home media center reference designs, Stream Machine hopes to play a key role in helping system OEMs tie their standalone consumer systems to networked boxes, Heuckroth said.