C-Cube soups up set-tops

New chip will support firewire, PVR functionality

C-Cube Microsystems is looking to capitalize on the growing momentum of digital set-tops by introducing an MPEG-2 decoder chip, the AViA-9600, which will support enhanced graphics, time-shifting applications and various connections to consumer-electronics devices.

Milpitas, Calif.-based C-Cube, the leader in providing MPEG-2 decoder chips for DVD players and encoder chips for professional compression devices, sees cable and satellite set-top decoder chips as its biggest growth market over the next few years. The company is third in the set-top decoder market behind ST Microelectronics and Broadcom, according to research firm Cahners In-Stat.

C-Cube's fourth-generation chip, the AViA-9600 will begin sampling next month and should be in production by January. Volume pricing is expected to be $22 per chip. The AViA-9600 integrates multiple processing units: host CPU (150 MHz RISC), audio/video decoder, audio DSP (digital signal processor) and graphics processor. It provides both IEEE 1394 (firewire) and USB controllers for connecting to external devices, such as DTVs or digital camcorders, and contains algorithms to support the "5C" digital copy-protection scheme over IEEE 1394. The 5C/IEEE 1394 combination is viewed as the most likely way that digital set-tops will connect to high-definition TVs and other external devices to display premium content.

"For the set-top makers, the cost of implementing firewire goes down because we put the control in the silicon," says Ed Silva, senior manager of product marketing for C-Cube's broadband-networking division.

The new C-Cube chip is also designed to support personal video functions, which are expected to find their way into set-tops as cable operators and DBS providers incorporate hard-disk drives. The AViA-9600 has an IDE (integrated drive electronics) controller to interface to hard-disk drives for such functions as time-shifting, and it supports CPRM (Content Protection for Recordable Media) encryption for copy protection of content on a hard-disk drive. The chip's MPEG decode engine also has trick-play modes to allow the consumer to pause, review and fast-forward recorded video.

Another new feature of the AViA-9600 is an enhanced graphics processor to handle the multiple requirements of cable MSOs, such as the ability to simultaneously display video, electronic-program-guide information and Web content. The AViA-9600's Display List Processor (DLP) architecture can support multiple overlapping planes without overly taxing the CPU, according to Silva. The DLP architecture has been refined based on C-Cube's experience with Canal Plus in its "Media Highway" interactive set-top platform.

An early AViA-9600 customer is Chinese consumer-electronics manufacturer Changhong, which will include the decoder in digital set-tops it is producing for China's fast-growing cable market.

"It's incredible," Silva says, "how much money is being spent in China to get these networks to be digital from the get-go."