Media Streamer Platforms Roundupby Ganesh T S on June 13, 2010 7:00 PM EST
This segment of the market is dominated by two main semiconductor companies, namely, Sigma Designs and Realtek. Now, Nvidia has jumped into the fray with the Tegra 2 chipset. Undoubtedly, the most famous products using the Sigma chip are the WDTV and the WDTV Live. However, the most powerful ones are the Networked Media Tanks (NMTs) such as Popcorn Hour's PCH-A110 and PCH-C200. With some add-ons, the PCH-C200 can also be considered as a media streamer / Blu-Ray player combo. A slew of media streamers using the Realtek platform have been released in the last few months. The most famous one is the Asus O!Play series. Other interesting offerings include the Xtreamer and the AC Ryan's Playon! HD. The Boxee Box was revealed to be based on the Tegra 2 chipset in CES 2010.
At the end of 2009, Sigma Design had two generations of products going into succesful media streamers, namely the 863x and 865x / 864x series. In all probability, the 865x and the 864x are from the same silicon, with the DRM segments and some video processing units disabled in hardware in the slightly underclocked 865x series. All the products have a MIPS32 processor, with the 863x series sporting a 333 MHz version, while the 865x and 864x sport 500 MHz and 667 MHz versions respectively. The standard USB, Ethernet and SATA connections are available in all the three SOCs, with the 864x also supporting SDIO. In addition to the usual acceleration for H264, VC-1, MPEG-2, DivX and MPEG-1, the Sigma SOCs also supports China's H264 competitor, AVS (864x and 865x only). The only missing piece is support for RMVB. With dedicated audio DSPs, audio codec support is also excellent. Depending on the end-product (whether a hard drive is included in the unit or not), power consumption may vary. While the WDTV (which uses the 8635) has an operational power around 8W, while the WDTV Live (which uses the 8655) has an operational power around 7W. On the other hand, the PCH-A110 (using the 8635) with an internal hard drive has an operational power of 15W. The PCH C-200 (which uses the 8643) is also rated for for a typical operational power of 15W. However, with internal hard drives and the optional Blu-Ray drive, the power draw may momentarily go as high as 70W.
Though Realtek has had multiple generations of SOCs geared towards this market (RTD1061, and now RTD1073 / RTD1283DD), they have not been as successful as Sigma Designs. The first well-known player using Realtek was from Asus, namely, the O!Play HDP-R1. This uses the RTD1073. Xtreamer, which made waves within the media streamer enthusiast community, when it first arrived on the scene, claims to use a specifically designed RTD128x (the 1283DD), which is nothing but a overclocked version of the RTD1073 with probably some unused PVR functionality built in. From the media streaming viewpoint, the technical capabilities of all these products are the same. The RTD1073 utilizes a 400 MHz MIPS32 host CPU with hardware support for decoding Real Media videos. Realtek provides connectivity options similar to the Sigma Designs SOCs. The Asus model goes one step further and exposes one of the SATA interfaces outside the unit as an eSATA port. The Realtek SOC happens to be not as power efficient as the Sigma SOC, with the Asus O!Play's operational power weighing in at a little less than 10W.
The Realtek RTD1283DD
Xtreamer's Secret Sauce
[ Picture Courtesy : User LeFric at mundodvd.com ]
One of the hotly discussed upcoming media streamer is the Boxee Box based on the Tegra 2 chipset. The SOC is based upon a much more powerful dual core ARM Cortex-A9, with a ARM 7 added in for host processor purposes. Standalone, this would beat the MIPS processors in the Realtek and Sigma Design chips hands down. However, Nvidia's HD decode engines have so far been restricted to the PC space, which do not call for a low power implementation. As yet, it is not known what shortcuts have been taken by Nvidia when implementing the decode engine in this space. It has already been reported that high bitrate videos are not supported. How will it stack up against the decode engines of Sigma Designs and Realtek? It will be known soon enough, once the Boxee Box lands in the hands of the reviewers.
Yuixx was one of the highly anticipated local media streamers which never saw the light of day. Based on Intel's CE3100 platform, it represented Intel's one and only shot in this space. Intel has since come out with the CE4100, which is one of the first platforms on which Google TV will run. Though Intel hasn't had much success in the dedicated media streamer market, they now seem to be succeeding at integrating their chipsets into other consumer electronic devices such as TVs and Blu-Ray players. The yet-to-be-released Amino Freedom media streamer is also based on the Intel CE4100. It will be interesting to see how the platform will fare when it reaches the hands of the consumers.
In the meanwhile, the battle between the Sigma and Realtek SOC platforms will become very interesting in the near future. Will Sigma bow down to the requirements of the Asian market and include Real Media support in the future? Will Realtek's roadmap include SOCs with support for dual HD decode? How long will Realtek take to deliver a SDK as stable as Sigma's? It looks to be a pretty busy year ahead for the two companies as they try to encroach upon each other's market share and try to stave off future competition from Nvidia in this space. Sigma already seems to have taken the lead over Realtek with the recent announcement of chips which are 3D enabled.