Entertainment pushes into the home front

01 May 2007

STMicroelectronics' design centre, Bristol
STMicroelectronics' design centre, Bristol

Last year, the screening of the football World Cup and Wimbledon championships in high-definition (HD) video formats brought a big push in worldwide demand for set-top boxes

It is estimated that around 120 million of these devices that receive, decode and display digitally transmitted broadcast were sold worldwide in 2006. The market grew by more than 20 per cent compared to 2005, with the market stimulated by the rapid transition from analogue to digital broadcasting that enables a both enhanced video and audio experience and an increased choice of channels. Additional growth looks set to be fuelled by the deployment of new services beyond television, such as digital video recorders, video on demand, video over the internet, voice-over-IP telephony, home networking and connectivity to mobile phones and portable media players.

Recent market trends have shown that set-top box manufacturers are looking to downsize their development efforts and reduce time to market. Increasingly, they turn to silicon suppliers for complete reference designs, each tailored to a particular market.These reference designs consist of fully laid out and populated hardware design together with a complete software stack consisting of drivers and middleware.

STMicroelectronics (ST) actively addresses the whole market spectrum, providing platform solutions for entry level decoders as well as highly advanced set-top box applications that support terrestrial, satellite, cable and broadband services. A broad-range supplier to key equipment manufacturers, ST provides all components from front-end chips and advanced digital video decoders to application software and standard discrete products.

High definition
In 2006, ST introduced the STi7100, a HD single-chip set-top box IC in 90nm technology, capable of decoding AVC (H264/MPEG-4 Part 10) content. These latest video compression technologies use less bandwidth and lower bit rates for producing high-quality video. Numerous leading set-top box manufacturers worldwide, including ADB, Motorola/Kreatel, Philips, Sagem, Samsung, Scientific Atlanta/Cisco and Thomson, have produced millions of end devices based on ST’s chips that combine the major functions of a set-top box and the latest video compression technologies in a single device. Earlier this year, ST scaled down the geometry of its single-chip MPEG-4 device to 65nm to deliver lower power consumption and competitive pricing.

The new HD
decoder chip offers some advanced functionality, such as dual HD video decoding, multiple video output, high-speed Ethernet, high-bandwidth digital media interface (HDMI) and fast USB connectivity. Supporting all major video compression technologies, including H.264/AVC, MPEG-2 and VC-1, this highly integrated system-on- chip (SoC) can be used across all HD markets. It also meets the requirements for both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD standards, allowing manufacturers to build a single hardware design to address both markets.

Simultaneous output
The chip can simultaneously decode two HD video streams, enabling the provision of multiple programmes without the cost and complexity of two set-top boxes. An embedded high-speed Ethernet modem can distribute the content throughout the home network, allowing viewers to watch HD material on two TV sets, one channel in high definition and the other downscaled on-chip to standard definition. In total, video can be output to three independently formatted displays: a full-resolution 1080p HDTV monitor; a down-sampled display for a personal video recorder or a local standard- definition (SD) TV monitor, and a remote SDTV monitor.

Local storage of multimedia content provides TV viewers with new levels of freedom and control. ST’s latest HD decoder integrates three full speed USB ports and dual Serial ATA interfaces, enabling consumers to connect external devices like hard disk drives or memory cards to turn their TV into a digital video recorder (DVR). Embedded digital rights management and secure connectivity features, such as high- bandwidth digital media interface and high- definition copy protection (HDCP), facilitate transmissions of encrypted content without compromising user convenience for legitimate copying or time-shifting. The chip also supports Windows Media DRM and the secure video processor (SVP) standards that allow digital rights to be passed between consumer devices.

Above standard
The mainstream set-top box market is evolving around unified, single-device platforms that provide basic ‘zapping’ functionality for satellite, cable and digital terrestrial services.

Earlier this year, ST introduced its latest MPEG2 decoder for SDTV with advanced security and graphics features. The chip integrates the ST20 32bit RISC CPU core, which is the most widely used CPU in the set-top box market. It also provides increased power for advanced applications and is fully compatible with all mainstream set-top box middleware.

Overall performance is further increased by an integrated 2D graphics subsystem that relieves the CPU of on-screen display (OSD) overhead and provides an enhanced experience for the viewer, such as an improved electronic programme guide. The decoder uses an innovative ‘blitter’- based display architecture, which rapidly performs graphics operations in hardware, allowing customers to build attractive user interfaces.

Demand for chips
Additional features include Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) descramblers in the transport de-multiplex block and copy protection that allow the chip to be used in cost-effective pay TV services. Support for a single-tuner DVR is also integrated for high- quality time-shifting. The chip also supports the latest security features required by all major conditional access (CA) suppliers to protect the customer’s content and services.

Since 1997, ST’s MPEG2 chips have been designed into more than 350million end devices worldwide. ST’s set-top box efforts are part of its overall strategy for the home entertainment market. Apart from set-top boxes, ST’s chips have been designed into a wide range of integrated digital TV sets and will soon be available in the second- generation universal blue-laser players, ushering in the era of new multimedia experience and advanced interactive services.

MARC VASSEUR is deputy general manager, Home Video Division, STMicroelectronics

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