Manhasset, N.Y. -- Shifting warily from the fast-growing but increasingly commoditized H.264 decoder IC market, a couple of semiconductor companies are testing the waters for H.264 High Profile encoder/decoders.
With codec demand said to be poised to explode among Japanese and South Korean consumer electronics manufacturers, the chip vendors hope to claim design turf in high-definition digital still cameras, digital video camcorders and storage devices.
Fujitsu Microelectronics announced last week that it is sampling a hardwired H.264 codec designed to handle the video format's High Profile, Level 4 standard.
Ambarella Inc. (Sunnyvale, Calif.) introduced the industry's first H.264 High Profile codec a year ago but has made few waves since then. Last week, however, chief technology officer Les Kohn told EE Times that Ambarella's chip has secured design wins with "several first-tier Japanese and Korean CE companies.
Most of the H.264 chips on the market, from such vendors as Broadcom, STMicroelectronics and Sigma Design, target optical disk players and digital set-tops and thus perform decode only.
But Ambarella's device adds the encode function to target design slots in next-generation digital cameras and portable storage devices. Citing recent advances in digital video compression with the development of the H.264 (main profile) standard, the company notes that users can now store one hour of true high-definition video (720p or 1080i) and four hours of standard-definition video on a 4-Gbyte flash device.
Ambarella's H.264 system-on-chip is based on a mix of dedicated hardwired blocks and programmable processor cores, including the ARM926. The chip integrates all the required digital camera system functions, ranging from HD video processing/compression and image sensor processing to audio processing and system functions. Ambarella says the SoC can replace current tape-based camcorder solutions requiring six or more chips. It draws less than 1 watt in operation, according to Kohn.
Fujitsu's system-in-package (SiP) device, the MB86H50, offers real-time encoding and decoding for H.264 High Profile video files and streams. By leveraging the efficiency of the H.264 video compression standard, Fujitsu's codec allows a consumer audio/video storage system to record and store more video content in high-definition resolution, said Davy Yoshida, director of business development at Fujitsu Microelectronics America. The MB86H50 also encodes and decodes sound in various digital audio formats, including Dolby Digital.
The Ambarella and Fujitsu chips play to the requirements of Japanese and South Korean consumer electronics manufacturers, whose system design objectives for H.264 devices diverge from those of their U.S. and European counterparts.
For example, Fujitsu's Yoshida touted the MB86H50's "low-power operation" and "smaller footprint." Like Ambarella, Fujitsu is pitching its H.264 chip for small consumer products, including digital still cameras, portable media devices and personal video recorders (PVRs).
By embedding two units of 256-Mbit fast-cycle RAM (FCRAM) on the same device "for the first time in the industry," claimed Yoshida, the MB86H50 allows a smaller system pc board while cutting power consumption. The 15-mm2 SiP device consumes 600 mW.
MB86H50 chips have been in the hands of a couple of unidentified Japanese consumer electronics manufacturers for "more than a year" said Yoshida. The companies are believed to be close to commercial launch on products incorporating the device.
Michelle Abraham, principal analyst at In-Stat, said the only chip she is aware of that's comparable to Fujitsu's is the Ambarella codec. Abraham said the Fujitsu IC, when used to transcode MPEG-2 to H.264, will be useful for either hard drive- or optical-based digital video recording.
But the Fujitsu chip may not be ideal for every H.264 application. Developers of HD-DVD or Blu-ray Disc players may be better off going with devices that can decode multiple video formats, since both next-generation optical standards mandate that systems decode not only H.264 but also VC-1 and MPEG-2.
Asked why Fujitsu had limited its chip to H.264, Yoshida replied that versions combining the H.264 codec with the company's existing MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 cores are already on the road map. As for VC-1, he said customers are still debating whether that advanced video codec is a crucial ingredient in the multidecoder mix for the set-top and PVR applications planned by Japanese consumer electronics companies, he said.
The MB86H50, scheduled for volume production in the second quarter on a 90-nanometer process, is sampling now at $120 each. Ambarella's chip, in production on a 130-nm process at TSMC, is available for $30 in high volumes.
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