Riding the digital wave

While a typical motherboard discussion may include socket numbers, cooling and power issues, today's manufacturers are livening up the chat by peppering the lingo with the types of component needed to make an impression in the digital home.

With a growing amount of digital content making its way into the living room, component manufacturers such as Gigabyte and Asus are unearthing new and improved ways to design components powering the devices of today and tomorrow, according to Gartner hardware analyst, Andy Woo.

Shrinking margins and the difficulty in differentiating product lines mean industry players need to look beyond the traditional desktop and rise above the sub-$1000 notebook category. One answer is to go after emerging market opportunities and make a buck from lifestyle and entertainment applications.

"The whitebox market is feeling the heat," Woo said. "It used to be price competitive but not anymore because the multinationals have slashed costs. Given the environment, many players are looking to the home environment and rolling out technology that fits into the digital living room."

From small form factor PCs and Media Centers to a host of digital entertainment and security devices, there are many markets to consider. "Components catering to the digital environment including digital TVs, cameras and game consoles are big growth areas," Woo said. "Many vendors, including motherboard manufacturers, don't want to be behind the eight ball."

So where's the action in the world of components? Many of the main motherboard players, for example, are rolling out Intel Viiv motherboards to cater to the digital home platform.

"Given it's an ecosystem, the Viiv platform is opening up new opportunities for hardware, software and content providers," Woo said.

A long way to go

While the digital concept has big growth opportunity, he warns industry players to cool their jets - at least for the time being. Media Center PCs today capture less than five per cent of the overall PC market.

"The concept is still very niche, it is still version 1.0, and we have a long way to go," he said. "We're heading in the right direction in terms of the software and the hardware, but we still need to educate end users about the whole concept."

At any rate, vendors are getting their digital ducks in order, and designing a host of components from souped up motherboards to advanced graphics cards. Gigabyte A/NZ country manager, Alan Chen, said the whitebox market has plummeted by about 7 per cent in 2005, he said, and as a result the company was looking to break new ground.

"This is a big concern for us, and we need to generate new demand," he said. "We see revenue coming from the digital home and the multimedia PC entertainment arena, which features a PC, TV and recorder in one entertainment centre."

As part of its growth path, the company has launched an Intel Viiv technology supported motherboard, which supports digital media and entertainment platforms designed for the digital home.

Chen said the motherboard was designed for low profile entertainment devices that merge with the living room environment. Optimised for dual core processors, the new digital home motherboard features the Intel 945G Express chipset.

"This is set to change the way users perceive home PCs with its consumer electronics quality audio and video features," he said.

With an advanced graphics engine for high-quality digital video, the integrated hardware based MPEG2 decoding helps to free up CPU resources during demanding living room applications.

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In addition to motherboard technology for digital entertainment devices, Chen said the company was developing products for digital surveillance systems market and advancing its development of graphics cards for gaming, two other hot markets worth chasing.

Catering to the surveillance market, IP speed dome and network surveillance cameras are a few of the technologies manufacturers are designing components for.

"The home user could be in the office and check security at home via the Internet," Chen said.

Asus, meanwhile, is also investing heavily into this digital home space. The whole concept of the digital home, and in particular the Intel Viiv platform, is presenting new opportunities to the market in terms of hardware, peripherals, services and applications.

"This is a whole new direction for hardware vendors," Asus components manager, Albert Liang, said. "We've been hearing about the digital home for some time, but no one had come out with actual solutions." As part of its push, Asus has launched an Intel Viiv-supported motherboard.

Liang said the latest Asus motherboard presented ways to help allocate and manage digital content by embedding two SATA ports as well as two external SATAII ports.

"The SATAII standard allows easy backup of entertainment content with superior 3Gbps transfer speed, providing enhanced scalability and doubling the bus bandwidth for high-speed data retrieval and saves," he said. Externally situated, the SATAII ports offer smart setup and hot-plug functionalities for easy photo, video and other digital content backup, making for digital enjoyment with convenience.

"The motherboard offers dual core technology, runs at a much lower voltage, offers improved power consumption and less heat," Liang said.

"This is significant as you merge digital devices into the home because the last thing you want is noise."

Going live

With all the Viiv frenzy, AMD isn't resting on its laurels and is set to launch AMD Live, which is comparable technology to Intel's Viiv platform, according to technical director, Michael Apthorpe.

Scheduled for a Computex launch in June, the Live PCs will come with 7.1 surround sound capabilities and will be tuned for home entertainment. While Apthorpe wouldn't disclose specific details, the Live machines will support Windows Media Center edition in phase one and will then be Windows Vista capable.

The machine requires IEEE 1394 Firewire while the TV tuner and remote are optional accessories - unlike with Intel's Viiv PCs.

In addition to AMD Live, the company also plans to launch Socket-AM2 platform at Computex. Based on double data rate 2 (DDR2), the technology will cater to all market segments.

"This will boost performance, offer higher frequency processors, and faster memory," Apthorpe said. AMD is also set to announce the next generation chip manufacturing technology early next year. Chip features were 90 nanometres (nm) in size - the next step is 65nm process technology, which would mean a tremendous boost in functionality, he said.

"We're currently at 90nm. At 65nm, it will reduce the heat, thereby addressing thermal issues," he said. "This will give the small form factor market a boost because there will be improved power consumption." Gigabyte's Chen said the company was looking forward to the rollout of Socket-AM2, which offers higher performance and boosted memory. Intel's Conroe technology, meanwhile, is also on his radar list. The dual-core desktop processor, which is slated for the second half of the year, will offer faster, quieter and cooler operations.

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"The technology offers better performance and less thermal dissipation," Chen said.

Conroe will boost performance, which is particularly attractive in the gaming arena, which will further drive the uptake of the digital home, he said.

The company has announced support for Intel 65nm processors that feature advanced performance and cooler operation on a full range of Gigabyte motherboards. With the new 65nm process CPU, users can get advanced technologies including Intel EM64T, Intel Virtualisation Technology, greater computing performance and improved CPU thermals for cooler and quieter PCs.

For the savvy gaming crowd, Chen said Gigabyte was banking on its G1-Turbo series motherboards, which were designed for overclockers and hardcore gamers. The motherboard featured the Intel 975X Express chipset and Gigabyte Turbojet technology.

"The Turbojet provides more room for performance tuning by improved thermal condition," Chen said. "Situated around the hottest components on a motherboard, it helps to efficiently remove heat generated by the CPU, Northbridge memory and is designed to cope with abnormal thermal conditions." While the digital home is a focus area for components manufacturer Albatron, it remains a small piece of the pie. The company plans to launch an Intel Viiv-support motherboard in Q3.

In the meantime, the company was focusing on going after niche markets and working with system integrators in a bid to fuel its momentum, Albatron product director, Darryl Chan, said.

The automotive industry, along with gaming and the billboard and display space, are some of the hot markets the company is providing a growing number of components for.

Asus and Gigabyte had a different point of view in terms of market opportunities, Chen said. They had the support infrastructure to go after a much larger audience and could take on the digital home space, Chan said.

Albatron was a smaller company while Gigabyte was focused on developing components for application PCs in niche markets such as automotive and boating

In building the non-traditional PCs, system integrators were adding the software component and the Albatron motherboards, Chan said. Now system integrators could use a standard motherboard, not have to rely on proprietary technology, and could integrate the software into a casino machine.

Think small

Pioneer Computers Australia, managing director, Jeff Li, was also gearing up for the digital home. The company was rolling out small form factor PCs and mini-PCs.

Certainly, the digital home story was growing, Li said, and the company was investigating all manner of components.

"With the aggressive PC prices, the answer for the channel is to offer something different," he said. The company is bringing out a Media Center barebone system, and is offering a mini Media Center, which runs a mobile CPU.

"The next big thing is MOD, a mobile platform on a desktop. It's a PC with a mobile CPU, which offers dual core, is low on heat and big on performance."

Impact Systems' senior channel manager, Peter Agamalis, said he'd like to see more components development in terms of integrated all-in-one LCD PCs.

"There's a hole in the market here. The all-in-one LCD PC could fit in a cavity or a wall or act as a mobile control unit," he said.

An entire PC inside a 17-inch LCD display, for example, is ideal for select verticals like healthcare which require specialised applications.

"There's only so much vendors do to spruce up on motherboards; it's the value-add that's fast coming the solution including the warranty and free software bundle," Agamalis said.