It's well publicized that the pattern of microprocessor development (as predicted by Moore's Law) has delivered many benefits and advancements to our modern world — namely, very practical and powerful products at affordable prices. For example, quad-core processors used in smartphones enable ubiquitous connectivity in a mobile device that's more than 150,000 times the price-performance of the 1982 Osborne Executive Portable. In the medical world, an ultra-low-power microcontroller used in the telehealth fitness shirt improves patient monitoring and enables a new way of delivering preventive medical care. The list goes on, but what about the benefits of analog integration?
It's my opinion that the benefits of analog integration are not widely publicized and applauded. We, the analog design community at large, deserve a pat on the back. The considerable benefits of analog integration can be seen in consumer and medical devices, as well as industrial and communications equipment. In the consumer space, smartphones would never realize a thin profile, light weight, and long battery life if not for dense analog integration centered on all the critical power-management functions.
Without analog integration, designers would be forced to use a collection of discrete switching regulators, linear regulators, battery charging circuits, and other power-related circuits. Instead, smartphone designers use a single power-management integrated circuit (PMIC) that delivers high-efficiency power conversion, integrates up to 35 analog functions in one device, and saves up to 200mm2 of space. Analog integration is equally important to enable the audio, touch screen, and gesture-recognition functions on a modern smartphone.
In the broadband communications segment, the RF transmitter signal chain is another example where analog integration has dramatically impacted size, power, performance, and cost. Here a single, ultra-high-speed, high-dynamic-performance DAC, a.k.a. RF-DAC, is able to synthesize the entire 1GHz downstream cable TV band. Or it can synthesize directly from bits to RF a multi-standard, multi-carrier cellular band from 700MHz to 2.6GHz.
To do either of these jobs, it once took several channels of high-speed DACs, multiple analog modulators, and handfuls of reconstruction filter components with associated performance hurdles. Now these discrete components can all be replaced with a single mixed-signal device taking advantage of direct digital synthesis techniques. Here the benefit of analog integration is a lower-cost and higher-performance radio solution that also has a significant environmental impact in terms of network energy savings and CO2 reduction.
Only 5-6 years ago, the practicality of software-defined radio was a RF system architect's dream. Now it's becoming reality. Is this divergence from the conventional RF transmitter architecture still considered a form of analog integration? I say yes.
This leads to the question “How is analog integration defined?” Does a simple device that integrates an op-amp, comparator, and reference qualify as analog integration? Maybe. Or does a slightly more complex device qualify as analog integration, such as a microprocessor supervisory circuit that integrates a voltage monitor, watchdog timer, battery switchover, RAM-gating, and reset output timer? More likely. If a single mixed-signal device enables a disruptive architectural change, like the direct conversion of bits to RF with a single RF-DAC, is it considered a form of analog integration? Heck, yeah, this is a new paradigm in analog integration.
What are some other examples of disruptive architectural changes enabled by IC innovation?