Remember when phones were used only for making voice calls, and TV was the only way to view video in the home? Today that is no longer the case, as applications are migrating to different devices giving users more choices. Voice, video, data and audio are now available on new platforms including tablets, media phones and multimedia cordless phones.
Initially it was believed that Wi-Fi could be used to provide both voice and data capabilities. However, due to DECT's ability to provide longer battery life and better coverage, most operators worldwide have chosen DECT as the technology of choice for home and office wireless voice distribution.
Faced with the challenge of integrating multimedia applications, Wi-Fi connectivity and DECT telephony, Consumer Electronic (CE) companies can either use different ICs withdistinct software stacks or select a unified software offering including a system on the chip solution with all of the capabilities built-in.
Both approaches have distinct advantages and disadvantages based on component costs, development costs, and product performance.
Multi-Chip Design: Best of breed and more purchasing flexibility
Choosing separate application processor, Wi-Fi and DECT chipsets based on their individual performance capabilities, can result in a best of breed offering. In addition, some of these chipsets may already be used for other consumer products, enabling CE companies to leverage their existing relationship to negotiate better purchasing terms.
In addition, if designers choose different semiconductor companies for the application processor, the Wi-Fi chip and the DECT chip, they have more flexibility, and lower risk by not being dependent on a single supplier.
However, integrating these three chipsets has its down side. While consumer demand for advanced multimedia devices is pushing engineers to get these devices to market faster, integrating chips can actually add considerable development time and push back delivery dates. Moreover, many of the CEs have cut down their engineering staff and do not have anymore sufficient resources to invest in developing costly projects.
As part of the integration effort, every component needs to be customized from top to bottom including the application layer, connectivity middleware software optimization, and hardware level board support packages. All of these integration points also need to be revisited anytime there is a component upgrade or system failures, which can increase long term support costs.
There are additional complications due to potential incompatibility and overlapping features between Wi-Fi and DECT chips. In some countries Wi-Fi and cordless phones are using the same band which requires more sophisticated software and RF mechanisms to enable simultaneous operation. There are also different regulations and certification procedures for Wi-Fi and DECT communications.
Integrating components can also result in reduced sensitivity which can translate into poorer coverage.
System on a Chip Solution: Faster time to market, lower development risk and unit costs
Application processor, Wi-Fi and DECT capabilities can be accomplished using a single piece of silicon bundled with hardware development kits (HDKs), embedded software packages, and software development kits (SDKs) to support multiple applications including VoIP, telephony, web browsing, email, widgets, and web radio.
Single chip sets include a microcontroller for general processing, dedicated multimedia accelerators (such as Video and 2D/3D graphics) with power management functionality, a DSP core to process audio streams and enable features such as voice compression, telephone answering machine and advanced ring-tones along with the required integration of standard peripherals.
By including all the components needed to support Wi-Fi, DECT telephony applications and multimedia/data applications, one chipset can lower risk while enabling manufacturers to achieve quicker time to market and lower development costs.
System-on-a-chip solutions reduce part count and system complexity as well as power consumption, crucial advancements for systems deployed with high-reliability requirements. In addition, having pre-integrated Wi-Fi and DECT capabilities simplifies the process of meeting regulations and receiving the required certifications.
Utilizing system-on-a-chip solutions can also give consumer product manufacturers a BOM-optimized solution since there are no overlaps between separate chips. An important element for CEs is the level of support they receive from their suppliers; by providing single piece of silicon with one SDK enable to provide also one stop shop for maintenance and support.
The downside of the system-on-a-chip solution is that it may provide, in the short term, more functionality than what is initially required for the first version of the device. However, having all the functionality built-in from step one, may become the norm as voice, audio and video become basic building blocks in any consumer connected device.
In addition, initially specialized system-on-a-chip solutions may have a shorter track record in the market and fewer deployments, which may be perceived as driving up risk for consumer product manufacturers.
To separate or to integrate?
As the race heats up to introduce converged communications devices for the home, it will take time before it is clear which connected devices and supporting chip sets will emerge the clear winners.
Whether combining different proven chip sets or picking an integrated solution is ideal depends on project timelines, product functionality and cost considerations. One thing that is certain, if consumer demand for these devices takes off, semiconductor companies will continue to innovate to provide bundled solutions that can reduce development time and costs for converged products.
Oz Zimerman is vice president of marketing at DSP Group.