Digital video recorders (DVRs) and set-top boxes are shaping up as one of the early proving grounds for traditional PC chip companies tentatively wading into the consumer electronics market.
Intel is eyeing a specific product line for DVR chips based on the x86 architecture used by chips found in most of the world's PCs, according to sources.
AMD, meanwhile, is openly ambitious about its plans for the x86 architecture with its "x86 Everywhere" strategy, and hopes to build upon its current success in making its Geode chips for IP (internet protocol) based cable boxes.
Upstarts such as Via Technologies and Transmeta are eyeing this market as well with their strengths in low-cost and low-power designs, respectively.
If the long-promised convergence between PCs and consumer electronics does occur, x86 chips in products such as DVRs could pay off for users, according to analysts. One of the hallmarks of the x86 chip companies has been their ability to reduce the price of new technologies as those chips are manufactured in growing volumes.
Assuming the cost issues can be overcome, the software and hardware advantages enabled by the x86 architecture could give DVR users the comfort of a standard platform to use with their PCs.
Chip companies are also looking for diversification options outside of the rapidly maturing PC market. DVRs and set-top boxes are popping up in more and more households as manufacturers add features that require increasing amounts of processing power.
AMD has already sold a number of its Geode x86 chips into set-top boxes through Europe and Asia, said Erik Salo, director of marketing for AMD's Personal Connectivity Solutions Group. The Geode GX533 chip runs at around 400MHz and uses less than 1W of power. AMD makes another more powerful chip called the NX1500 that runs at 1GHz and uses 9W of power under maximum conditions.
Intel sells a development platform tailored for set-top boxes. The Intel 830M4 chipset and development platform were originally sold by the company's mobile division, said Steve Reed, director of marketing for Intel's consumer electronics group. The graphics technology in the chipset and the Ultra Low Power Mobile Celeron chip lend themselves well to the set-top box market, he said.
Intel might be looking into developing specific technology for the DVR market, but the company and its customers are content to reuse notebook technology in DVRs at the present time, he said.
However, the company is sharpening its focus, according to sources. Intel's forthcoming DVR chips will likely carry a separate brand name and come with features tailored specifically for the DVR and set-top box market, sources said. An Intel spokeswoman declined to comment on unannounced products.
In many ways, the x86 architecture presents a natural evolution for DVRs, said Kevin Krewell, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report.
There are many software developers who are familiar with the architecture, having worked on applications for Microsoft's Windows operating system, Krewell said. This means DVR manufacturers can use applications that consumers are already familiar with or even use smaller versions of Microsoft's Windows operating system in their products, he said.