SAN JOSE --After successfully surfing the first MP3 wave, chip makers are preparing new codec families to catch more profits.
At this beach, the king of downloadable audio has been the PC. But about a year ago, a small upstart called the Diamond Rio, by S3 Inc., kicked sand in the PC's face and ushered in a horde of decode-only MP3 players. OEMs are now looking to Cirrus Logic Inc., Texas Instruments Inc., and start-up PortalPlayer Inc. for codecs to set their new products apart.
Cirrus has already added MP3 firmware to its consumer-audio products, and plans to introduce its first dedicated MP3 codec, the Maverick EP9312, at the Embedded Processor Forum in San Jose this week. PortalPlayer announced plans to challenge Cirrus with a similar approach. Dallas-based TI, meanwhile, is adding encoder support to its line of 'C54 DSPs, although its work has been delayed a month.
PortalPlayer in Santa Clara, Calif., has caught the attention of venture capitalist Gordon Campbell and audio site MP3.com, raising $16 million in venture capital to support 120 new employees since the company was founded a year ago.
For now, PortalPlayer will concentrate on the established portable-player market. But the company plans to target the more lucrative home-audio segment. Even within the portable-player market itself, the opportunity is significant: Forward Concepts, a Tempe, Ariz., research firm, estimates that 15 million players will be sold by 2003.
"On Day One, we all sat in the same room and said, 'Let's build the most kick-ass portable system,' " said John Mallard, president and chief executive of PortalPlayer and former chief technical officer at National Semiconductor Corp. "Two months later, we all sat around wondering how to fit it into minicomponent systems. If a decoder sounds good on headphones, that's one thing, but it also has to sound good on a pair of $2,000 speakers, in my opinion."
Still, PortalPlayer's new chip, the Tango, will be up against established veterans. Because of disclosure limitations imposed by the forum, a spokesman for Cirrus in Austin, Tex., could only say that its first codec, the EP9312, was based on the ARM920T core. More details are expected this week.
TI's 'C54 DSPs will gain encoding capabilities through a licensing deal signed in January with Fraunhofer. But the work, originally scheduled to be completed this month, was pushed back until July because of licensing complications, said Randy Cole, chief technologist at TI's Internet Audio Division in Austin. The algorithms will be added to TI's 160-MHz, 160-mips 'C5416, now sampling, as well as the forthcoming 'C55x, which processes 2 mips/MHz.
PortalPlayer's Tango is similar to the granddaddy of all MP3 chips, Cirrus' EP7209 Maverick processor. It's based on the ARM7TDMI core, running up to 24.576 MHz. Where the Tango diverges, however, is in its use of a second ARM core, paired with custom PortalPlayer logic as a co-processor. Combined, the two cores generate 133 mips at peak rates, enough to handle both decoding and encoding functions.
PortalPlayer will supply hardware, firmware, PC software, and development boards for "a turn- key solution," Mallard said. The Tango and other chips can decode MP3 files. But PortalPlayer has also licensed a number of "secure" file formats such as Liquid Audio or the Advanced Audio Codec (AAC), which prevent copying via security measures like watermarking. TI's AAC support has been slated for the third quarter at the earliest, Cole said.
The Tango chip can encode and decode samples from 2 to 96 KHz at rates from 2 to 256 Kbytes/s. While the Cirrus Maverick typically consumes 87 mW when decoding 44.1-KHz, 128-Kbit/s samples, the Tango requires 130 mW on average for audio-file playback, which jumps six to eight times when encoding, according to PortalPlayer.
It also has the ability to interface to just about anything, which PortalPlayer claims is a significant advantage over competitors like Cirrus' Maverick, which connects only to flash memory. The Tango contains native interfaces to up to 256 Mbytes of SDRAM (512 Kbytes are typically needed for encoding) flash memory, CompactFlash memory, Sony's Memory Stick, the Secure Digital or SD Card, MultiMedia Card, SmartMediaCard, and generic SRAM, together with a generic IDE interface to CD-ROM drives or other storage devices.
A Universal Serial Bus version 1.1 connection has been integrated, along with 16 general-purpose I/Os. Like the Maverick, the Tango includes a direct connection to an LCD controller. Oki Semiconductor is manufacturing PortalPlayer's Tango on a 0.25-micron process, and the chip will ship within a 208-pin TQFP or 256-pin BGA. The Tango is sampling for about $40, with volume deliveries set to begin in mid-August.