SAN JOSE, Calif. Startup Mirics Semiconductor is gearing up two chips aimed at letting a notebook computer receive and playback any digital terrestrial TV or radio signal. FlexiTV includes a wide multiband receiver chip along with demodulation software that runs on a host x86 processor.
By driving the complex demodulation work to the host, Mirics believes it can deliver by the end of the year a mini-PCI Express card for a $5 bill of materials that could tune into a broad range of services from AM radio to Europe's terrestrial digital TV stations. That could drive adoption of TV tuners to as much as 30 percent of the estimated 160 million notebooks shipping next year, up from just a percent or two currently using such cards, the company claimed.
"We can support any TV or radio standard with this chip set, but implementing playback in software will consume more power," said Simon Atkinson, chief executive of Mirics (Fleet, UK).
Specifically, tuning in a high resolution, high bit-rate TV signal such as Europe's DVB-T standard or ATSC in the US could consume up to 60 percent of the processing power of a 2.2 GHz Intel Core Duo processor. Lower resolution and bit-rate standards such as Japan's ISDB-T and Korea's T-DMB would take less than 20 percent of the host. Radio playback requires only a few percent of the host.
The Mirics multiband RF chip can receive signals ranging from 150 KHz AM radio to 1.9 GHz DVB-T. It is paired with a chip that packages the signals on to a USB 2.0 bus to send to the host for demodulation.
The two Mirics chips consume 70mA when receiving video streams. They can be packaged in a single 5x5mm BGA or on a USB dongle or miniPCI card and will be in production in the fall.
Currently, Mirics has demodulation software in beta test for a handful of radio and TV standards including AM, FM, DAB, DVB-T and T-DMB. It expects to release in 2009 software for ATSC, ISDB-T and possibly the DTMB standard being adopted in China.
By contrast some early ATSC tuner/demodulator combinations consume as much as 1W. DVB-T combos use about a third that power, Atkinson said. The chips themselves, available from a wide array of vendors, cost nearly as much as the FlexiTV card and are hardwired for receiving just one or two standard signals.
"A number of top tier OEMs want to embedded TV in notebooks starting on 2009 with mini-cards," said Atkinson, claiming Hewlett-Packard and Sony are among them. "Ideally they want to have a global solution," he added.
A consumer notebook engineer from one top tier OEM said the company is making an increasing number of its notebooks TV capable. However he said the attach rate for TV reception for the next couple years is likely much smaller than 30 percent of notebooks, and mainly focused on Europe.
The architect was not familiar with Mirics. However, he was skeptical a $5 card would make a significant difference in uptake. "People also talked about the impact of a $5 Bluetooth chip, but ten years later we are just getting going with that technology," he said.
The Mirics solution's heavy use of the CPU also raised questions. "If you are cranking a Core 2 Duo at 60 percent, you are doing a lot of things counter-intuitive for a notebook," he said.
FlexiTV is based on the MSi001 RF receiver Mirics announced in July 2006, aimed at the cellphone market. The chip uses software configurable switches between its internal blocks to optimize operation of its frequency synthesizers, filters and other components for a given signal. The chip supports a range of single- and dual-conversion heterodyne and direct conversion radios.
The RF chip is beginning to ship in production for cellphones, paired with a variety of third-party hardware demodulators.
"The [mobile TV] market has taken a while to mature," said Atkinson. "People underestimated the challenges of building out new infrastructure and generating demand for subscription mobile TV services.
"By focusing on digital terrestrial services we can now aim at sectors where there is an infrastructure and content already available," he added.