Serial Soirée

Altera Tempts with Tons of Transceivers

by Kevin Morris

The age of mainstream 40nm FPGAs has now arrived.

Last May, Altera announced the first-ever 40nm FPGA family - Stratix IV. Last quarter, that announcement became a practical reality as the company began shipping Stratix IV devices to customers. Last week, in dueling announcements, Altera announced their second wave of Stratix IV devices, while Xilinx rolled out their new Virtex-6 and Spartan-6 families. Across all of these announcements, one thing is clear. The race for supremacy in the 40/45nm process node for FPGAs focuses on the proliferation of high-speed serial I/O.

In their latest announcement, Altera has beefed up their Stratix IV family with a new "Stratix IV GT" line and introduced a new generation of their low-cost SerDes-havin' Arria family with the new "Arria II GX." With this latest round of announcements, we can see that the old days of the Swiss-Army-Knife-style transceivers is gone. FPGA companies are now far more sophisticated, producing an array of transceivers optimized for various speeds, protocols, and power profiles. Altera already had high-speed serial transceivers in their 40nm line, but this recent announcement broadens the portfolio considerably.


The Road Ahead

The ITRS Updates The Forecast

by Bryon Moyer

Each year the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS) does an update. In case you haven’t seen it, it’s a comprehensive review of where the industry thinks the industry is going. It covers everything from materials to geometries to packaging.

2007 was a weighty update. It seemed like the whole technology roadmap got a good scrubbing. If it’s the first update you’ve seen, you might get the impression that things change a lot from year to year and that visibility is limited. Which might not be that big a surprise – how many of you can predict where you’ll be in five years? Well the ITRS forecast goes out to 2022. Yeah. Feels particularly ironic now; everyone’s wondering whether they’ll have an income in three months, and yet we’re predicting out 15 years. I guess it’s like forecasting the weather: long-term trends are easier to forecast than tomorrow’s rain.


Freescale Bets on “Net-Book” Processor Chip

by Jim Turley

Just in time for the post-holiday buying season, Freescale has announced its newest embedded microprocessor, the i.MX51. Like other chips in the company’s MX line, the i.MX51 is an ARM-based chip intended for relatively high-end portable systems. Whereas the i.MX31 and ’35 parts are often found inside of automobiles, the ’51 is being touted as the ideal processor for a whole new category of products: the “net-book” computer.

Priced at less than $20 in volume, including its companion power-management and audio-codec chips, the i.MX51 bundle is a bargain. Freescale’s hope is that net-book computer makers will look favorably upon the i.MX51 when comparing it against similar chips from Intel, TI, and Qualcomm. Freescale’s pricing undercuts Intel’s by almost one-half, depending on what you count. Whether that $20 difference in hardware bill of materials will swing the deal is anybody’s guess.


Grand Unification Theory

Xilinx Launches 40/45nm Virtex-6/Spartan-6

by Kevin Morris

It's all coming together.

In response to a rapidly broadening market and increasingly niched and specialized competition, the world's largest FPGA company has narrowed and focused. With the celebration of their 25th anniversary and the introduction of their new Virtex-6 and Spartan-6 lines, the company is demonstrating the principle of doing more with less - ironically solving a broader class of problems with a narrower range of solutions.

Of course, a lot of this consolidation actually takes place under the hood, where most designers may never notice. As the company has demonstrated in the past, once you have a solid, functional FPGA platform, it is a comparatively trivial matter to re-market it wearing the clothes of a number of specific, targeted areas. Venerable Virtex has already appeared in the space version, the automotive version, and wearing a number of other pseudo-disguises that make it appear ready-made to address the most pressing challenges of a number of valuable target application areas.


The End of Silicon Valley

by Jim Turley

A moment of silence, please, for Silicon Valley. Intel announced last week it would close its chip-manufacturing plant located near the company’s headquarters in Santa Clara – and with it, the very last chip fab anywhere in Silicon Valley.

The technology that gave its name to the Santa Clara valley, once called “the valley of heart’s delight” for no immediately obvious reason, has left for greener pastures. When I started working in electronics, Santa Clara still had fruit orchards in it. Chip plants alternated with cherry trees. Now there’s no silicon in Silicon Valley. (There’s still plenty of silicone jiggling around the valley, but that’s a different story entirely.)


Buy a Processor; Get an Operating System

by Jim Turley

Everybody’s making deals these days. Fast-food joints have “value menus.” Hotels are offering two-for-one deals; ailing Internet retailers will cover the cost of shipping; desperate SUV dealers are probably ready to offer sexual favors in exchange for a test drive.

We’ve got red-hot deals in embedded processors, too. Freescale has hung out the banners, inflated the balloons, hired the clowns, and shouted, “we must be crazy!” Their gimmick: buy a microprocessor – get a free operating system.

Yup, that’s right. If you buy one of Freescale’s brand-new ColdFire 5225x chips, you get a free license to the Precise MQX real-time operating system, complete with drivers and network stacks. This is no mere “try and buy” development license, either. It’s a full-on production license that you can use in shipping products, no strings attached.

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