Digital video recorders (DVRs) and set-top boxes are shaping up as one of the early proving grounds for traditional PC chip companies tentatively wading into the consumer electronics market.
Intel is eyeing a specific product line for DVR chips based on the x86 architecture used by chips found in most of the world's PCs, according to sources.
AMD is openly ambitious about its plans for x86 architecture, with its "x86 Everywhere" strategy, and hopes to build upon its current success in making its Geode chips for IP (Internet protocol) based cable boxes.
Upstarts such as Via Technologies and Transmeta are also eyeing this market with their strengths in low-cost and low-power designs, respectively.
If the long-promised convergence between PCs and consumer electronics does occur, x86 chips in products such as DVRs could pay off for users, according to analysts.
One of the hallmarks of the x86 chip companies has been their ability to reduce the price of new technologies as those chips are manufactured in growing volumes.
And the software and hardware advantages enabled by x86 architecture could give DVR users the comfort of a standard platform to use with their PCs if the cost issues can be overcome.
Chip companies are also looking for diversification options outside of the rapidly maturing PC market. DVRs and set-top boxes are popping up in more and more households as manufacturers add features that require increasing amounts of processing power.
AMD had already sold a number of its Geode x86 chips into set-top boxes through Europe and Asia, director of marketing for its personal connectivity solutions group, Erik Salo, said.
The Geode GX533 chip runs at about 400MHz and uses less than a watt of power. AMD makes another more powerful chip called the NX1500 that runs at 1GHz and uses 9 watts of power under maximum conditions.
Intel sells a development platform tailored for set-top boxes.
The Intel 830M4 chipset and development platform were originally sold by the company's mobile division, director of marketing for Intel's consumer electronics group, Steve Reed, said.
The graphics technology in the chipset and the Ultra Low Power Mobile Celeron chip lent themselves to the set-top box market, he said. Intel might be looking into developing specific technology for the DVR market, but the company and its customers were content to reuse notebook technology in DVRs at the present time.
However, the company is sharpening its focus.
Intel's forthcoming DVR chips would likely carry a separate brand name and come with features tailored specifically for the DVR and set-top box market, sources said.
An Intel spokesperson declined to comment on unannounced products.
In many ways, x86 architecture presented a natural evolution for DVRs, editor-in-chief of the Microprocessor Report, Kevin Krewell, said. There were many software developers who were familiar with the architecture, having worked on applications for Microsoft's Windows operating system, he said.
This meant DVR manufacturers could use applications that consumers were already familiar with or even use smaller versions of Microsoft's Windows operating system in their products.
However, using x86 chips in consumer electronics products such as DVRs raised cost concerns, Insight 64 principal analyst, Nathan Brookwood, said.
DVRs and set-top boxes required enough processing power to handle simultaneous video encoding and decoding, as well as reading and writing to a hard drive, Brookwood said. Many DVR manufacturers found they could deliver that level of performance with separate processors for specific tasks that cost less to implement than a single general purpose processor.
In order to reach the price points demanded by DVR and set-top box companies, Intel and AMD could simply further reduce the functionality of the Celeron and Sempron chips, Krewell said.
Via is one of the companies aiming to position itself as offering an alternative to the more-expensive x86 competitors.
The company's PC processors have not caught on outside of a few select markets in Asia, but they deliver comparable performance to Intel and AMD's low-end chips and are generally less expensive.
Via has also spent time courting the consumer electronics manufacturers in Taiwan and Japan and had the ability to build an entire motherboard for these companies, principal analyst with the Enderle Group, Rob Enderle, said.
Companies such as Intel and Via offered a complete motherboard appeal to DVR manufacturers who wanted to reduce the time required to build and release a product.
In order to keep DVRs quiet, many manufacturers insist on building a device that does not require a cooling fan, which seems like a natural fit for Transmeta's low-power x86 chips.
Transmeta's Efficeon processors have been used in thin-client devices from Wyse Technology and HP, and many thin clients were designed to handle a similar level of work as set-top boxes or DVRs, Krewell said.
Eventually, most x86 chip companies want users to purchase entertainment PCs that can handle digital video recording, storage and a host of other functions.
Chip companies always want to sell powerful chips with powerful margins, but some analysts think consumers might find themselves content with a standalone DVR based on older x86 technology, rather than an expensive multifunction PC.