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Set-top market gets more power, storage

Tue, 01/04/2011 - 7:40am
Brian Santo

Innovation in the set-top market is exploding, and all without CableCards, mind you.

Leading into the Consumer Electronics Show, two key set-top chip suppliers – Sigma Designs and Broadcom – announced new super-powered chips. At the end-product level, Iomega is teaming with Boxee, and the rumor du jour is that Microsoft may hit the market with a set-top.

Behind all this is the speculation about why Google isn't making a big splash with Google TV at CES, as it was widely expected to do. (The Boxee box conforms to the Google TV model.)

When it comes to chips, both Broadcom and Sigma Design are, at the simplest level, providing more processing power. Future set-tops and gateways will need to do more, and they need to be more powerful, plain and simple.

Broadcom announced nine new chips, all designed for set-tops, media servers and gateways, each optimized for either the cable, satellite or IP market.

The system on a chip (SoC) ICs all incorporate a high-performance application processor, support for Internet-based whole-home connectivity applications and services, and support for full resolution HD 3-D TV capabilities.

In the media server cable, satellite and IP STB market, Broadcom introduces two new cable STB SoCs.

Another chip, the BCM7425, integrates a real-time HD transcoder coupled with an applications processor, full resolution 3-D TV with SVC, an OpenGL ES 2.0 3-D GPU and MoCA 1.1. Another version of this chip, the BCM7424, adds Ethernet MII and PHY support for connectivity with Broadcom's Wi-Fi and powerline products.

The BCM7418 is a second-generation connected client STB SoC with MoCA 1.1 that works together with server STB SoCs (such as the BCM7425 and the BCM7422) for enabling whole-home connectivity and multi-room DVR.

In the satellite STB market, Broadcom introduced four SoCs all featuring full HD and support for various home networking standards.

In the cable and IP STB market, Broadcom introduced two new hybrid HD DVR IP STB SoC solutions.

Most of these chips integrate NDS' VideoGuard Security Kernel, which provides secure digital content delivery for next-generation connected home devices. Conditional access (CA) features include Control Word Protection and ICAM (integrated conditional access module) and enables direct rights management (DRM) technologies for content sharing in home networks.

Meanwhile, Sigma Designs launched a new chip set that the company claims is the first to combine studio-quality video processing and 3-D video processing in a single die. The chipset is aimed at IPTV set-tops, OTT set-tops and other media products for the consumer market such as Blu-ray players.

Sigma's SMP8910 leverages the company's VXP video processing, previously used only in video production equipment, and a distributed processing architecture to manage HD, multi-format video decoding; 3-D graphics rendering; content protection and security management; and multi-format audio encoding and decoding.

The company claims that VXP is superior at upscaling images, eliminating noise and video compression artifacts, and performing numerous image enhancements such as adaptive contrast and detail enhancement. The company said the chip can be the basis of set-tops that will enable service providers to transmit full HD 3-D TV without increasing bandwidth or decreasing video quality. SMP8910 samples will be available to customers in the first half of 2011.

It was only a matter of time before storage specialists realized that storage capabilities are becoming key elements in DVRs, gateways and other media servers. Iomega has jumped into the market with the second STB based on Boxee software (the first was D-Link's).

A version that merely streams video is $229.99. Add a 1 TB drive and the price goes to $299.99. A model with double the storage is $349.99.

Iomega simultaneously introduced a home storage device that not only includes local storage, but also network access. The Home Media Network Hard Drive Cloud Edition is a network-attached drive, priced at $159.99 for the 1 TB version and $199.99 for the 2 TB model. Both come with a free service called Personal Cloud, which allows customers to access content from anywhere through an Internet connection.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is said to be tailoring its embedded Windows product for set-top boxes and connected TVs. The software will have a Windows Media Center interface with media streaming and remote control capabilities, according to a report in the Seattle Times.

The boxes are expected to cost around $200 and go on sale later this year.

Boxee and Intel (which is providing the Atom chip powering both the D-Link and Iomega Boxee boxes) operate in the Google TV environment, but Google itself has been absent from the set-top market, and notably is going to remain so, with reports that it has asked its direct partners to pull Google TV products from CES.

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