ADI to upstage Silicon Image with new HDMI 1.4 IC

MANHASSET, NY — Some brand new digital consumer devices — AV receivers, sound bars or home-theater-in-a-box systems — slated for launch in the coming Christmas season might include HDMI 1.4 — a digital interface promising new options including support for 3D processing, audio return channel and Ethernet channel.

Most likely, those are powered by Analog Devices, Inc. (ADI)'s new HDMI 1.4 transceiver IC, rather than those by Silicon Image, Inc., a leader in HDMI innovation.

ADI claims to be the first in the industry to start sampling HDMI 1.4 transceiver chip Tuesday (Sept. 29th). The move is a coup for ADI, at a time when Silicon Image, ADI's biggest competitor in this market, appears to be fumbling with its own HDMI 1.4 chip. Silicon Image announced the chip in June but a broader sampling is not in sight.

When asked about the new HDMI 1.4 chip, Waheed Rasheed, director of marketing at Silicon Image stressed, “Sampling started in the second half of 2009.” But he added, “Products incorporating HDMI Specification Version 1.4 features are expected to reach retail stores in the first quarter of 2010.”

Meanwhile, ADI noted that its HDMI 1.4 chips are in the hands of lead customers. Doug Bartow, strategic marketing manager of ADI's advanced television segment, said, “Definitely, there will be retail products incorporating our HDMI 1.4 chips this Christmas.”

ADI's new HDMI 1.4 transceiver chip, ADV7623, supports both audio return channel and 3D display, but not Ethernet over HDMI. In contrast, Silicon Image plans to support all three in its upcoming HDMI 1.4 product family.

But considering customers' growing demand for a new audio return channel feature embedded in HDMI 1.4 chips, ADI decided it would be better to fill orders in time for Christmas, rather than delay while cramming every capability into the first product. Bartow said, “Truth to be told, we had already begun developing the first HDMI 1.4 chips — due to the strong demand by our customers — even before the HDMI 1.4 spec was completed.”

ADI is also pitching ADV7623 as the industry's first single-chip HDMI 1.4 transceiver.

Competitors' solutions often come in separate chips — a receiver, a transmitter and a port processor to support fast switching — in addition to memory and passives to complete HDMI 1.4 solution. ADI's Bartow claimed, “With our transceiver chip, all you need is one chip. It translates into at least $2 to $3 cost savings for OEMs.”

ADI has also added to ADV7623 a fast switching technology, called Xpressview.

It allows fast, automatic switching between HDMI-enabled AV devices. ADI claims that it offers switching in “less than a second,” since the new chip is designed to handle, upfront, verification and authorization of connected HDMI-enabled AV devices, and keep those devices in a standby mode.

By not having to reauthorize an HDMI-enabled AV device every time when an AV receiver switches its source, an AV receiver powered by Expressview will offer consumers “visible improvements,” according to Bartow. Such a feature is similar to Silicon Image's “InstaPort,” offered in its port processor already launched last year.

ADI's new single-chip HDMI 1.4 transceiver IC is priced at $10.95 in the quantity of 1,000. Silicon Image is not disclosing its pricing.

Split opinions

Every time an HDMI spec is upgraded, the new spec offers a variety of freshly enabled options. Opinions among vendors and industry analysts are split as to which new features of the HDMI 1.4 spec will be most important to new consumer devices.

Randy Lawson, senior analyst, at iSuppli Corp., voted for “embedded Ethernet capability.”

iSuppli has a optimistic outlook on the “connected” home for the ever-growing list of digital & HD-capable CE devices for the living room. Lawson said, “It is our belief that the ability to connect these products into the home network is becoming a more important and critical feature both for the OEM and for consumers.”

He added, “Consumers see internet-connectivity for their new BD players, game consoles and IETVs as a way to gain access to new services or content, and OEM's see internet connectivity (via Ethernet connectivity offered on their products) as a new customer-access method and potentially a new sales channel.”

Clearly, for Silicon Image, the support for Ethernet channel in HDMI 1.4 spec is critical for the company to advance its agenda such as LiquidHD Technology.

Silicon Image is counting on HDMI Ethernet channel devices to transmit and receive full duplex data at 100 Megabit per second over an HDMI cable. However, whether it is something that major CE companies are ready to roll out soon remains to be seen.

Chris Chinnock, president of Insight Media, on the other hand, is more interested in 3D support.

“HDMI 1.3 can support 1080p at 24 Hz per eye, but you need to display at 60 Hz/eye. Therefore, some interpolation and/or double flashing of the 3D content is needed,” said Chinnock. “With HDMI 1.4, there is enough bandwidth to transfer 1080p/60 per eye. The Blu-ray spec is not yet complete, but I suspect it will specify 1080p/24 for film content, but provide a path to support 1080/60 per eye for HDMI 1.4 enabled devices.”

The HDMI 1.4 spec is designed to carry special coding for 3D TV and separate it from the HDMI data stream for scaling [to be done] downstream, according to ADI's Bartow.

For now, however, the hot HDMI 1.4 feature is the audio return channel, in ADI's opinion.

As more and more large screen TVs get ultra-thin, “There is actually no space to put audio processors, let alone speakers, inside the TV,” observed ADI's Bartow.

Product like Soundbars ,which handle audio processing capabilities including surround sound effects, are a way to get a better audio experience back into TV viewing. But without an audio return channel installed in the digital interface between TV and soundbar, nothing changes.

iSuppli has recently forecasted that consumer electronics devices enabled by HDMI will grow from 274 million units in 2009 to 328 million units in 2010 and 463 million units in 2012.

Such CE products include TVs DVD player/recorders (SD and HD types), digital STBs, camcorders, home theatre systems, consumer projectors, video game consoles and others. These forecast numbers do not include other non-CE equipment, such as graphics cards, notebook PCs, retail/signage.

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