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ARM-led Linaro to push tablet, STB SoC convergence

Posted: 07 Mar 2014  Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ARM  tablet  STB  SoC  Linaro 

The digital TV space is here to stay, and won't be going away anytime soon. In fact, there is a silent battle taking place in the digital TV market among semiconductor companies, which is predicted to have a notable impact as key players reshuffle and target devices expand.

First, the players persistently chasing the DTV and set-top market are no longer traditional TV chip vendors. Instead, mobile (i.e., tablet) SoC vendors have emerged to take the lead. Second, ARM, accordingly, is putting significant effort into the ecosystem of DTV SoCs, once a domain dominated by MIPS (now acquired by Imagination Technologies). Third, key players in the DTV field are now Chinese. Western contenders such as Intel, Trident and Zoran abandoned the DTV SoC market a few years ago.

A case in point is Allwinner Technology, a fabless chip company in Zhuahi, China, that specializes in ARM-based apps processors for smartphones and tablets.

Allwinner stepped forward and announced earlier this week that it has joined Linaro as a founding member of the Linaro Digital Home Group. Linaro is a not-for-profit organization, comprising more than 200 engineers, whose mission is to optimize open-source software for the ARM architecture.

It's important to note that the Chinese company isn't being listed as a nominal member of Linaro. Instead, Allwinner is eager to take an initiative in the digital TV and set-top market. Jack Lee, Allwinner's chief marketing officer, said, "We will take an active role in the organization and work with Linaro and the open-source community to drive new ARM technologies."

Compared to the time when the DTV and set-top market meant bulky cable or satellite set-top boxes or large-screen DTV designed to run simple applications in a walled garden environment, today's digital home market consists of everything from cable/satellite/IP set-top boxes to Roku, Apple TV, Netgear, SmartTV, HMI "sticks," and smartphones and tablets.

These devices receive signals, not just from broadcast, but also from cloud-based services. They run applications such as Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter while sharing content via WiFi, AirPlay or Miracast.

In short, anyone, who believes that today's DTV market is dead, is misinformed.

"There is a massive battle brewing on the DTV and set-top space," Steve Taylor, executive director of marketing at Linaro, stated.

Tablet, STB silicon functions

Meanwhile, when one compares tablet SoCs with IP set-top SoCs, it is clear that the key subsystems on such SoCs, including CPU and GPU, are already common. Content security known as High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) 1.2 is also implemented in upcoming SoCs with ARM TrustZone, according to Linaro.

Linaro believes the industry will find clear benefits in using tablet SoCs for IP set-top boxes.

So does Allwinner.

Allwinner claims that it has shipped more chips for Android tablets globally than any other supplier over the last two years. A spokeswoman at Allwinner told EE Times, "In addition to connected tablets, our chips are today already used in Android set-top boxes, HDMI dongles, notebook computers and advanced driver assistance systems."

The company's product line-up includes its latest UltraOcta A80 processor, which Allwinner calls "the world's first ARM big.LITTLE octa-core heterogeneous SoC design to include a 64-core PowerVR G6230 GPU." The point is that the chip's powerful multimedia features, including 4K encoding/decoding, H.265, tri-screen display and advanced wireless screen mirroring, make it a "strong candidate for digital home devices," she added.

That said, however, such convergence between tablet ICs and set-top box SoCs doesn't necessarily make both chips portable or interchangeable.

The problem for SoC vendors catering to today's very much alive and well DTV and set-top market is that they still face a substantial fragmentation in the market. This exists in video formats, adaptive streaming protocols, software digital rights management solutions, media frameworks, web browsers, and trusted execution environments, explained Linaro's Taylor.

ARM, which has led the mobile revolution with its processor IPs, now sees that its licensees in the tablet SoC market would greatly benefit, only if they could leverage software work already done in the open-source community in the digital home segment.

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