SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. Intel Corp.'s first x86-based chip for consumer electronics is looking pretty darn good, and the next one could be hard to beat. The CE 3100, aka Canmore, represents an initiative that speaks to everything from Intel's growing system-on-chip capabilities to its drive toward Internet TV, a concept that has left many pioneers dead by the roadside.
The new chip sports a 3,000 Dhrystone MIPS x86 core, three DDR2 memory channels and a graphics block from Imagination Technologies capable of spitting out 13 million polygons a second in a chip dissipating less than 10W. And that's using 90nm process technology and a three-year-old notebook PC core.
The chip comes with a full software stack and reference design for use in Blu-Ray players as well as set-tops and TVs for both the U.S. Tru2Way cable spec and Europe's DVB standard. Samsung and Toshiba have said they will design systems with Canmore and other giants including Sony have expressed some level of interest.
Next up is Sodaville where Intel swaps in its 2W Atom x86 core and leverages its 45nm process technology. The 2009-generation chip will be part of a family of devices customized for various consumer systems.
"This is a really different chip for the consumer guys," said Steven Wilson, principal analyst for consumer video technologies at ABI Research (Oyster Bay, NY). "It has a of graphics capability and raw performance you don't usually see in traditional CE gear."
Intel has not announced pricing for the chip which will be in production in a few weeks, making it hard to gauge exactly where it might fit. Wilson said it could at the very least be a good platform for high-end Blu-Ray drives looking to add fancy user interface features and is well timed for cable operators looking for powerful but low-cost systems to run upcoming interactive services.
"Two or three years down the road this could be a very inexpensive platform covering a range of products," said Wilson.
Beyond the graphics and CPU performance, Intel is touting its x86 as the native silicon for the Web—the next big thing for today's digital TVs.
"The TV is at an early stage of delivering connectivity, so we think it is a good time to get this going," said Eric Kim, general manager of Intel's digital home group who announced Canmore at the Intel Developer Forum Wednesday (Aug. 20).
Kim launched the chip along with a software framework developed in partnership with Yahoo! for delivering Internet services on a TV via software widgets. About a dozen companies including U.S. cable TV giant Comcast and set-top maker Motorola have agreed to help define and manage the software environment which Intel calls the Widget Channel.
"After flat panels and high definition, people want to bring the Internet to the TV," said Patrick Barry, vice president of connected TV services at Yahoo!
Mark Francisco, a Comcast fellow, said the cable operator sees the Widget Channel as a complement to the Tru2Way services it and other U.S. cable companies are starting to deploy. Tru2Way represents a set of stable applications and services in a managed end-to-end cable environment, while the Widget Channel could be an avenue for short-lived applets customized by users and related to time-sensitive events such as the Beijing Olympics.
"Intel's schedule for the chip and software is critical because the cable operators are trying to roll out Tru2Way services this fall," said Rick Doherty, principal of Envisioneering (Seaford, NY).
As for Blu-Ray, Intel's timing is perfect. If Intel makes gains in this space, it will largely be at the expense of Sigma Designs whose processor is used in most Blu-Ray drives today.
With the format war just settled, drive makers are focusing on how to roll out a range of high-end to low cost drives. "Canmore has the potential to grow the population of Blu-Ray players greatly because we are still in an early adopter phase," said Andy Parsons, senior vice president of advanced product development at Pioneer and marketing chair of the Blu-Ray Association.
About six million Blu-Ray drives have shipped in the U.S. to date, most of them built into Sony Playstation 3 consoles. With the format war settled, there are now some 900 Blu-Ray titles, more than double the number just six months ago.
So-called Blu-Ray Live players that can link to the Net are just hitting the market with first products out from Samsung and Sony. Blu-Ray players range from less than $300 to more than $800 today.