SAN JOSE, calif. Makers of power supply and PC peripheral controllers are finding boxes with "Intel Inside" a supportive market in an otherwise dreary economy. Despite somber third-quarter guidance given by Intel Corp. at the Santa Clara, Calif., chip giant's Intel Developer Forum here this week, briefings and product introductions by companies like Intersil, Analog Devices, National Semiconductor and Texas Instruments suggest that the PC market is showing signs of recovery, making PC support ICs a sound development investment.
"Let's face it," said a National Semiconductor Corp. spokesman. "A company like Intel needs tons of analog to make those Pentiums sing."
"If you're going to play in computers, you have to latch to Intel," said Rick Furtney, vice president and general manager for power-management ICs at Intersil Corp.
Intersil, for example, used IDF to announce progress on new products and tout its position in the PC power supply market. Intersil claims leadership in the switching-regulator ICs (pulse-width modulators) that power the Pentium CPU, with more than a 50 percent market share in power-management devices for Pentium-based systems.
The Palm Bay, Fla., company did $175 million in business during the second quarter, 26 percent above the same quarter last year, said Furtney. Some $43.7 million of that total, or 25 percent, was in power-management devices. Indeed, Intersil was the No. 1 supplier of PWM controllers in 2001, passing Linear Technology, Maxim Integrated Products and Texas Instruments in shipments, according to Venture Development Corp.
Intersil's growth in power-management ICs, in fact, matches its rise in wireless-networking (IEEE 802.11) components, a segment that is expected to grow 25 percent this year. Here too, Intersil has a dominant share. Meanwhile, Intersil estimates that all notebook computers carry some $30 to $35 worth of Intersil parts and the dollar content of PDAs is growing.
New-product introductions including the ISL6590 digital controller and ISL6580 integrated driver, due to sample next month, come from an alliance with Primarian, a Tempe, Ariz., startup founded by Intel veterans. They project that Pentium cores will soon be in the 0.5- to 0.8-volt range, with current spikes approaching 150 amps and overall power consumption in the range of 80 to 140 watts.
The key to fast response to transient surges is the ability to anticipate the Pentium's current requirements a method facilitated by direct communication with the CPU rather than the traditional current-sensing methods used by other voltage regulators, says Intersil's Furtney. The company calls the technique which hinges on Primarian's advanced power modeling and a thus-far proprietary digital bus "Digital Power."
Intel now uses a 5-bit interface to communicate its core voltage requirements to the voltage regulator. It is likely, though, that the bus used to implement Digital Power will become an industry standard or, at least, something other voltage regulator makers can support Furtney acknowledged.
While Intel was attempting to demonstrate imaginative form factors for future PCs and wireless devices and promoting its Banius portable-computer processors and PXA250 products for PDAs Intersil sees good business in the Pentium-4-based "desk-note" format, a feature-laden portable that performs all the functions of an office-bound desktop. This market uses Intersil ISL6219/ISL6215 switch-mode regulators and shows 10 to 15 percent growth.
Perhaps Intersil's most dramatic product introduction at IDF was a blue-laser driver IC developed by Elantec. The company, which Intersil acquired earlier this year, has held a leadership position in laser drivers, high-current devices for writable CD-ROMs and DVDs. The proposed Blu-ray Disk standard will increase DVD density to 27 Gbytes.
While Analog Devices Inc. (Norwood, Mass.) used IDF to tout its leadership in PC audio, its product introductions included PC health-monitoring ICs. Its dBCool ICs thermal-management devices control both temperature and fan noise in notebooks and desktops, and will turn on a cooling fan in response to elevated temperatures in the PC enclosure. They also will also regulate the fan speed to minimize the noise it generates.
These acoustic-noise control features were already available in ADI's PC thermal-management ICs, said marketing manager Paul Errico. The latest enhancements (available with the ADT7460 and ADT7463 devices) allow PC system designers to dynamically optimize fan speed for systems in which internal configurations are subject to change (as when a PC user changes airflow conditions by inserting or removing a PCI or AGP add-in card).
Without dynamic adjustment, designers would need to manually program fan turn-on and turn-off points, and coordinate fan speeds with measured temperatures, said ADI field applications manager Robin Getz. "Ordinarily, a Compaq excuse me, HPQ machine will spend six to eight weeks trying to figure out what those numbers are," Getz said. The new thermal devices do that automatically, allowing fan ramp-up and ramp-down in three thermal regions.
Analog Devices, with revenue of $445 million for the quarter ended Aug. 3, does about 22 percent of its business in personal computer and related consumer IC businesses, according to its 2001 annual report.
National Semiconductor Corp. (Santa Clara) chalked up $421 million in revenue for the quarter just ended on Aug. 26, and cites "information appliances" as a primary market focus. PCs and notebook parts account for 10 to 15 percent of National's revenue, a corporate spokesperson said. However, "We're not necessarily the best barometer for the PC industry, since our business includes display drivers for flat panels and CRTs," he added.
On the exhibition floor of IDF, National waged war with ADI in the PC thermal-management space. Parts like the LM78 and LM85 appeared to lead the way in PC thermal management when they were first introduced, but National and ADI have argued vehemently (and off-the-record) about who was first to market with advances on these. (Though absent at IDF, Maxim Integrated Products, Microchip Technologies and, to a smaller extent, Winbond Electronics also compete for design wins in PC thermal management.)
"We have a different way of looking at the problem," Zaryab Hamavand, National's technical-marketing manager, said of his competition.
National's IDF product introduction was the LM63, an adaptive fan control device that, like ADI's, reduces acoustic noise by turning on the PC cooling fan just enough. PC makers' well-known problems increasing power, shrinking size are "a recipe for thermal problems," said Hamavand.
National's device accepts inputs from the Pentium's own thermal diodes or from a discrete transistor pair. It includes both high-frequency and low-frequency controls, with hysteresis loops. The stepping fan motor control includes nonlinear step functions. "We're not constrained by frequency," said Hamavand.
The interface devices Texas Instruments Inc. rolled out at IDF include the predictable USB 2.0 controller (the TUSB6250) and the less-predictable PCI1620 CardBus controller. The USB device provides an ATA/Atapi bridge, while the CardBus controller includes a built-in smart-card reader.
TI's participation in the PC space is dominated by bus interface parts (for 1394 and USB) and specialized mixed-signal devices such as disk-drive controllers, preamps and printer controllers.