PORTLAND, Ore.—Earlier this year, Freescale Semiconductor Inc. announced the first line of processors designed to power sub-$99 e-readers. Now it has extended that line downward with integrated E-Ink driver circuitry for low-end devices from medical and home/office automation to watches whose face is an electronic paper display (EPD).
"Freescale now makes the most scalable family of processors in the industry," said Rajeev Kumar, i.MX product line manager at Freescale Semiconductor. "Regardless of the kind of device you are designing, engineers will find a good fit, from quad-core devices for high-end automobiles to dual-cores for tablets to single-core devices for cost sensitive applications."
The i.MX508 was Freescale's first processor with an integrated E-Ink display driver alongside its Cortex A8 processor core, with the first commercial device using that chip the Kobo e-reader. Now lower price point processors join the family, including the i.MX507, which subtracts the integrated graphics processor, and the i.MX503 and i.MX502 which include LCD drivers instead of E-Ink display drivers.
Any of the new chips are available on a single-board reference-design computer with a daughterboard socket for plugging in an E-Ink or an LCD display as appropriate. The expanding family also has a new power management chip, the MC34708, which simplifies supplying the different voltages required by the processors, managing battery power, and recharging from a USB connector. The MC34708 also has an integrated coulomb counter, 10-bit analog-to-digital converter, real-time clock, indicator LED drivers and six GPIO ports.
"A lot of people choose their platform based on the performance of the processor, which today is not just speed," said Michael Jennings, product line manager for the new MC34708 power management chip. "What the MC34708 really brings to the party is energy efficiency and sophisticated power management that can be tailored to the application."
Freescale plans to continue expanding its family of i.MX processors for every imaginable application, from smart retail shelf labels to large digital signage to displays for agricultural equipment like tractors. Their sweet-spot, however, is the emerging diversity of consumer electronic devices which are replacing the traditional categories of desktop and laptop PCs
"The next 10 to 15 years is going to be all about a resurgence in personal computing," said Kumar. "What I mean by that, is that a wide range of diverse devices will use a common architecture to provide users with an experience that is customized to the way they live and the way they want to access information."
Freescale's i.MX50X reference design board includes a socket for a daughter board with either an E-Ink eReader display (shown) or a traditional LCD.
All of Freescale's i.MX processors have multiple low-power, standby and sleep modes as well as on-chip dynamic voltage and frequency shifting to provide processing power when it is needed, but without sacrificing long battery lifetimes for mobile devices.
Various models include its enhanced pixel processing pipeline (ePxP) and OpenVG graphics accelerator, support for EPD and LCD displays, and guarantees that its chips will be available for up 10-year product life cycles.
Freescale already had a high-end micro-controller with a built-in interface to E-Ink's displays, but now even low-end devices can benefit from eReader displays. The advantage of E-Ink's displays over LCDs is that they are nonvolatile, effectively acting as memory devices as well as displays. For retail shelf tags, for instance, the micro-controller could update tags one at a time, then power down and not have to update them again until the prices change, unlike LCDs that have to be updated every few milliseconds, thereby consuming orders of magnitude more energy.
This should open up a lot of segments Eink and Freescale to make itself to become a prominent Eink technology provider. Combined with low power processors and these display technologies have the potential to creep into hitherto unexplored areas like advertising, small vendor POS, government mail, etc.