SAN MATEO, Calif. Startup MediaQ Inc. has developed a graphics engine for low-power wireless Internet appliances built around an advanced architecture that allows handheld systems to run Web-browsing and rich multimedia applications while dramatically reducing system-level power drain.
This development kicks off what industry watchers expect will be a series of moves by chip vendors in 2001 toward smarter partitioning of processing tasks for power-stingy handhelds.
STMicroelectronics recently told EE Times it plans to roll out in mid 2001 a Pocket Multimedia Platform for mobile phones and PDAs, with a special emphasis on clever system-level partitioning for system-on-chip (SoC) platforms. "To design such a power-conscious platform, by far the most important thing is the right partitioning," said Philippe Geyres, corporate vice president at STMicroelectronics and general manager of the consumer and microcontroller groups.
Lower-power cores and processors on an SoC are a start, but more important are issues like off-chip vs. on-chip memory, memory access, bus bandwidth and I/Os, Geyres said.
Both MediaQ (Santa Clara, Calif.) and ST also are predicting a new trend for handheld solutions, in which a traditional single-processor architecture will give way to the use of multiple DSP and processor cores that intelligently share multimedia processing tasks.
STMicroelectronics plans to offer on its Pocket Multimedia Platform flexible combinations of a number of cores, including SH-5 processors and very long instruction-word cores for deeply embedded multimedia functions.
"Customers don't care how many cores we use in a system. What matters in a power-conscious platform is the best system architecture that can minimize bus traffic and memory access," said Geyres.
For its part, MediaQ in January will sample the MQ1132 and MQ1100. Each combines a 64-bit 2-D graphics engine, a liquid-crystal-display interface, a USB device controller and embedded memory in a single device. The MQ1132, additionally, offers USB host and serial peripheral interface controllers and an I2S stereo-audio interface.
"Our goals have been to design a new handheld system architecture that can achieve high performance while consuming less power," said Manish Singh, product manager at MediaQ.
Developing such a balanced system architecture is critical at a time when "lower-power, display-centric connected appliances are becoming so popular," said Sunder Velamuri, vice president of marketing and co-founder of MediaQ. "Handheld devices are expected to provide instant response to all these new applications and yet they need to be power-stingy," he added. Connectivity to wireless or wired peripherals is also a must.
Processor-intensive applications like multimedia, office applications and games "place increasingly heavy demands on the capabilities of today's single-processor handheld architectures," said Alex Slawsby, analyst for smart handheld solutions at International Data Corp. As these demands begin to outstrip processor capability, a need arises to off-load some functions from the main processor, such as video or audio processing, he added. Solutions such as MediaQ's let the processor focus on core OS functions. "The result will be increased device capabilities, which will allow for the further evolution of smart handheld-device applications and functionality," Slawsby said.
In designing their new chips, MediaQ's engineers many of whom designed chips for portable products at companies such as S3, Chips & Technologies, Cirrus Logic and LSI Logic paid special attention to the efficient use of scarce handheld-system resources like CPU cycles, memory bandwidth and power.
The 2-D graphics-acceleration chips off-load memory-intensive graphics operations from the CPU. And by integrating 256 kbytes of SRAM, the MediaQ ICs also reduce interrupt traffic to the CPU by buffering multiple I/O transactions in on-chip SRAM.
The chips are designed to conserve memory-bus bandwidth and system power. For graphics operations such as display refresh, for example, the CPU and DRAM/system memory can be turned off when using the MQ1132, thus cutting system power drastically. System power consumed during refresh can be as low as 35 milliwatts. By contrast, as much as 200 mW is consumed if only a CPU such as the StrongARM is used, with no separate graphics chip, said Singh. The MQ1132 also buffers peripheral traffic to reduce memory-bus utilization and lower system power consumption.
The key to the MediaQ chips lies in the company's ability "to provide a significant power reduction over current solutions while at the same time providing optimal performance," said Adrienne Downey, research analyst at Semico Research. MediaQ's "target for power management is the LCD, which is the largest power consumer in a portable device."
Downey added, "By taking over the graphics frame buffer and peripheral interface functions, combined with the increased embedded memory to handle these functions, MediaQ's device frees up bandwidth between the CPU and system memory for applications and the operating system."
The chips support the major portable operating systems such as Palm OS, Linux, WindowsCE and Epoc32, and a variety of CPUs. The latter include the Hitachi SH-7750 and SH-7709, Intel's StrongARM, Motorola's Dragonball, NEC's VR-4100 and Toshiba's TX-39x2 processors. Such flexibility would only "make MediaQ's chips easier and less costly to design-in than other solutions," analyst Downey observed.
The MQ1100 is priced at $10.95 per unit for volumes of 10,000 per month, while the MQ1132 sells for $12.95 in similar quantities.