The next round of game-platform redesigns may still be four to five years out, but chip and software designers in the areas of wireless, MEMS, displays, miniature cameras, sensors, actuators and storage have an opportunity to be part of those multi-100-million shipments, as platforms respond faster to user demands by converging on interactivity, connectivity and information display.

Indeed, that convergence may push gaming patforms from peripheral to the center of the home-entertainment system and replace the STB with broadband and cable/satellite capability, complemented by fully digital or optical audio and video inputs and outputs and PVR storage.

Teardowns
These were just some of the conclusions reached by Semiconductor Insights at the end of videotaped teardowns of gaming platforms past and present, from the Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii and the Xbox 360 Elite, all the way back to the Atari 2600 (A HREF="http://www.eetasia.com/ARTICLES/2007JUN/2/Gaming_teardown_links.HTM">View video teardowns). The Atari retrospective teardown shows just how far game-platform design has come.

It not only exposed the sheer magnitude of the performance and cost improvements but also shed light on the changes in technology, design practices and business models that have taken place between the 2600 and Xbox 360 Elite. It also provided the perspective necessary to predict where gaming boxes are headed—and what opportunities may lay ahead for second- and third-tier chip and software designers eager to land a socket in next-generation platform designs.

"It’s laughable looking back at the Atari versus the Playstation 3," said Greg Quirk, technology marketing manager at Semiconductor Insights—and an avid gamer. "It had basically three chips from UMC," he said, and even those were put onto one Xilinx FPGA in 2005, "with plenty of capacity left over." In comparison, the PS3 has a dozen devices. The FPGA-based Flashback redesign was done by Atari as part of its 30-year anniversary celebration. Legendary Engineering did the design work. "They reengineered it down to minimize cost—and make a quick buck off the original," said Allan Yogasingam, manager, strategic supply chain at SI and also an avid gamer.

Grandfather of consoles
However, the Ataris debuted in a different era, at a time of no competition and little pressure from users. That led to a design that was geared more toward cosmetics. "Back then they didn’t have to focus on margins and how they can save: it just had to look cool," said Quirk. "Now we design more for cost, heat management, cooling and efficient test." Atari also made a profit on the platform, versus the games. That model has since been inverted, with only Nintendo now managing to scratch out a small profit from the platform, the rest—Sony and Microsoft—make their money on the aftermarket games, said Quirk.

While the design and profit models have changed, one of the biggest changes is the level to which users are driving the designs. With the original platforms, Atari could more or less dictate what would be included. "Now users are making the demands," said Yogasingam, referring to increasing pull for better graphics, higher definition, storage, interactivity, wireless connectivity and online gaming capability.

Bigger and better
Even as they latest crop of platforms began rolling out late last year, improvements and upgrades were already in the works. The Xbox 360 Elite’s big improvements over the 360 were a bigger hard drive and a HDMI connection. According to Quirk, Sony is about to release a PS3 with an 80Gbyte hard drive, up from 60Gbytes—and will kill the 20Gbyte option. The move to online gaming and the ability to download content has been a huge driver of local storage. Nintendo’s Wii came with Wi-Fi capability out-of-the-box, and while the others support Wi-Fi as a peripheral, SI expects them to have it out of the box soon. Other features now commonplace include force feedback and rumble capability, motion sensing, vision feedback and high-definition using either Blu-ray or HD DVD.

"It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the Blu-ray versus HD DVD fight," said Yogasingam, who expects to see a Blu-ray add-on option from Microsoft. "Microsoft isn’t heavily invested in HD DVD."

All these changes, while critical, don’t compare to the innovation Nintendo had with its motion-sensing interface. "Nintendo Wii created something that was completely different for the first time in 15 years," said Quirk. "They didn’t have the same graphics-materials-processor focus as Sony or Microsoft, they focused more on the gaming ‘experience’." He also said Nintendo opened up the market across age dividers. "It spans 6 to 60 while Microsoft and Sony focus on the 18- to 34-year-olds: hardcore gamers who can afford them." The Nintendo Wii costs $249 while the PS3 and Xbox are between $500 and $700.

Cost factor
One of the business fundamentals of gaming-platform design is that the company must pace their redesigns to maximize the return on each platform upgrade. "It’ll be another four or five years before we see something new, especially given that they’re losing money on each system," said Quirk. "They need to extend lifecycles to make money." That said, all will continue to add features and connectivity support, "but they’ll need to lower cost through process shrinks."

SI expected the current crop of designs to incorporate 65nm process technologies, down from 90nm, but that didn’t happen, so Quirk believes that’ll be coming soon from Sony and Microsoft as part of their cost-reduction strategy. That need for cost-reduction was the main impetus behind the Sony/Toshiba/IBM and Nintendo/IBM/ATI/Chartered partnerships, and while SI expects those partnerships to remain intact going forward, part of the strategy for future cost reductions will be the evaluation of second- and third-tier chip and software vendors as they jockey for a socket in the next round of platform designs.

"There’s a lot more competition," said Quirk. "Everyone wants to get designed into them. With volumes in the hundreds of millions, a design win for of these gaming platforms is huge, both from a press and revenue point of view."

MEMS wins
With the runaway success of Wii’s 6-axis controller technology, Quirk and Yogasingam expect MEMS to be an increasing part of controller design, as well as for PDAs and other handsets. For wireless, 802.11n is hot. "If .11n finally becomes a standard, they’ll all include it," said Quirk.

With constant evaluation, keeping a design win is almost as hard as winning it. "Nintendo could easily shove Broadcom out in favor of Marvell," said Yogasingam. Also, second sources are crucial. "Whomever has the part when it’s needed," may well determine the winner, he added. For example, on the Xbox, Elpida and Samsung are flipped in and out at Microsoft’s whim. The same for Elpida and Qimonda on the PS3.

For displays, Quirk predicts the cost of newer, super-HD systems that are now emerging will come down in time for next-generation boxes, while Yogasingam predicts gaming and entertainment will converge on one box with DVD, Internet/broadband, storage, STB capability and video/audio.

"Video gaming is helping drive technology and will continue to do so," said Quirk. "And consumers are helping to drive that."

Patrick Mannion
TechOnline

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