Saturday, November 17, 2007

AMD Rumoured to Consider Selling Off Fab 38 to TSMC

Advanced Micro Devices, currently the No. 2 maker of x86 central processing units (CPUs), is reportedly in talks with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) over the transition of Fab 38 to the world’s largest contract semiconductor manufacturer. Even though the rumour has been circulating for months and is generally considered as an improbable one, there may be changes in AMD’s way of managing its business.

“We had heard this speculation before but those talks were deadlocked on approval by German officials. We now hear that the talks are on again, probably with greater clarity from the German authorities and further review of AMD’s outsourcing strategies,” said John Lau, an analyst for Jefferies & Co., in a note, reports EE Times web-site.

In particular, it is claimed that AMD is looking forward to either sell off its Fab 30, which should be converted to Fab 38 that will be processing 300mm wafers and capable of producing 45nm or 65nm chips in the coming years, completely, or to find an investor who will be operating the fab together with AMD, speculates FabTech web-site. In a situation when a joint-venture between AMD and, for example, TSMC will operate the fab, AMD will trim its manufacturing-related financial losses and will lower the cost of improving its manufacturing facilities.

For many years Advanced Micro Devices has constructed leading-edge fabs to manufacture chips, developed state-of-the-art fabrication technologies, created advanced microprocessors and had to manage their manufacturing, packaging and delivery to customers. While even a decade ago the whole process was rather complex, it allowed AMD to become one of the world’s largest semiconductor companies and obtain revenues that fabless semiconductor developers could only dream about. But the times change and in the most recent quarter AMD’s earnings were roughly $1.6 billion, whereas revenue of fabless Nvidia Corp. reached nearly $1.2 billion, moreover, unlike AMD, the graphics chip designer Nvidia reported a huge profit, whereas the x86 CPU maker claimed another loss. Therefore, it may be logical for AMD to think about become a company that develops and sells and cease to be the one that develops, manufactures and sells.

Contract semiconductor manufactures like TSMC and United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC) develop so-called bulk process technologies that are tailored for usage model of a chip, but are not tailored for its micro-architecture. But supplying state-of-the-art x86 chips requires developers of those chips and appropriate process technologies to work very closely together and tailor both for each other. Therefore, AMD would need work very closely with TSMC and share its intellectual property to get its chips produced. On the other hand, ATI, graphics product group of AMD, is already a client of TSMC and produces very complex graphics chips using manufacturing capacities of the contract Taiwan semiconductor manufacturer. Moreover, as soon as AMD gets its code-named Fusion microprocessors with built-in graphics chips ready, it will have to decide whether it is easier to produce them using its own fabs, or outsource production to other makers.

Earlier this year AMD denied possibilities of selling off its manufacturing facilities in Germany. The company did not comment on the current news-story.

The Blu-Ray Vs. HD DVD Format War Is a “Stalemate”, Says Sony Chief Executive

Howard Stringer, the chief executive officer of Sony Corp., said at a news-conference that the war between two high-definition formats – Blu-ray and HD DVD – is a stalemate and that it was just a matter of prestige for Sony or Toshiba to see their backed format win. The claim seems really logical as the war between the formats slowdowns adoption of high-definition video in general.

“It’s a difficult fight. […] We were trying to win on the merits, which we were doing for a while, until Paramount changed sides. [But winning] doesn’t mean as much as all that,” said Howard Stringer at the 92nd Street Y cultural center in Manhattan, reports Associated Press news-agency.

Currently Toshiba sells its HD-A2 players for about $200 in the U.S., whereas Blu-ray disc players are available at the price that exceeds $400. Nevertheless, since Sony PlayStation 3 game console (which was sold in more than 4 million units quantity) features built-in Blu-ray disk drive, Sony can claim higher installed base of BD players compared to Toshiba-backed HD DVD format. Nevertheless, given that gamers acquire PlayStation 3 to play games, but not watch high-definition movies, Toshiba has all chances to win the format war in the longer term due to the fact that customers buy its standalone HD DVD players specifically to watch movies.

The format war has been slowing down sales of both Blu-ray disc as well as HD DVD players and obviously both Sony and Toshiba have suffered from the war. Nevertheless, neither Sony, nor Toshiba, have announced plans to release a player capable of both BD and HD DVD playback.
Toshiba lead the development of the original DVD format as well as HD DVD in the nineties, whereas Sony developed such failed standards as ATRAC, Betamax, Super Audio CD and UMD.

Nevertheless, given that Blu-ray disc is also supported by companies like Matsushita, Pioneer and others, it may not share the destiny with Betamax, which lost the video cassette war against VHS.

Blu-ray and HD DVD formats compete for replacing the DVD standard. HD DVD discs can store up to 15GB on a single layer and up to 30GB on two layers. Its competitor, Blu-ray, can store up to 27GB per single layer and up to 50GB on two layers, but Blu-ray discs are more expensive to produce. The HD DVD is pushed aggressively by Toshiba and NEC as well as being standardized at the DVD Forum, which represents over 230 consumer electronics, information technology, and content companies worldwide. Blu-ray is backed by Sony and Panasonic, which are among the world’s largest makers of electronics. Among Hollywood studios HD is supported by Warner Bros. Studios, New Line Cinema, Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures, whereas Sony Pictures, Walt Disney, Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox endorse Blu-ray.

Microsoft Set to Start Sales of New Zune Players on Tuesday

Microsoft Corp. on Monday confirmed that it would start to sell new versions of its Zune portable digital media players on the 13th of November and also announced numerous new intentions that will help end-users to customize their players and obtain new content. The new features are projected to revive sales of Microsoft’s players that have been lagging behind Apple iPod since the introduction last year.

Earlier this year Microsoft announced three new models of Zune portable digital media players: black Zune 80GB hard disk drive-based model, which has a 3.2” screen and comes with premium headphones as well as ultra-portable Zune 4GB and Zune 8GB flash-based models, both available in pink, green, black and glossy red. The new Zune players will have the same functionality as the first 30GB model, including Wi-Fi support, FM radio, music sharing and so on and will add more with forthcoming software updates.

The two new Zune models feature the new Zune Pad, an innovative touch-sensitive button for navigating on the device, as well as wireless sync, a feature that allows Zune devices to automatically sync over the device owner’s home wireless network when it is connected to an AC adaptor, in a dock or speaker dock accessory.

Consumers will also have an option to customize their Zune player with laser-engraved designs and personal text through a new Web store called Zune Originals. Customers will be able to purchase a Zune player directly from Microsoft and choose from a collection of laser-engraved artwork designed exclusively for Zune by 18 internationally recognized artists.

“We’re bringing the entire category to the next level by empowering consumers to play a role in redefining the digital music experience. Zune brings music discovery and acquisition into one simple, end-to-end solution, and the addition of unique customization options puts the originality back into portable entertainment,” said said J Allard, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Zune.

There are two key software-based innovations that the new Zune bring: Zune Social network and updated Zune Marketplace with Zune Pass. The Zune Social network will help customers to seek music preferences of their friends and similar-minded individuals and discover new music for themselves. The new Zune Marketplace, which features music collection that consists of three million music tracks, will offer flat rate ($14.99) access for the whole collection for a month, something that is not available at other large music stores, such as Apple iTunes or Amazon.com’s store, but is present on such stores as eMusic. Besides, Microsoft will offer to buy DRM-free music files.

Microsoft Zune 80GB will have manufacturer suggested retail price of $249, whereas Zune 4GB and 8GB will be available for $149 and $199, respectively.

Intel to Explore Possible Uses of Rambus’ XDR Memory Technology

Rambus, a leading designer of high-performance memory and interface technologies, on Wednesday said it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Intel Corp. under which the latter would explore possibilities to use XDR memory from Rambus with its products. No concrete decisions were announced, but the fact that Intel, which experiences was Rambus’ RDRAM was not well accepted, is noteworthy.

Rambus plans to dedicate certain technology and design resources to the effort and the evaluation will be done on Intel’s silicon process technology. The company stressed that Intel was only evaluating the technology for possible future uses and has no specific product plans for the XDR memory technology at this time.

Back in May, 2005, Rambus already said that it wants to get back into Intel’s roadmap with the ultimate goal to provide high-performance memory for personal computers. However, since then the industry successfully adopted DDR3 memory technology, dual-channel memory controllers became mainstream, triple-channel memory controllers are knocking the door and memory bandwidth is hardly a performance limiting factor for modern microprocessors.

Earlier in 2007 the memory technology company claimed that as the number of processing engines increases, requirements for higher memory bandwidth also go up. For example, single-core Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 3.73GHz had memory bandwidth as high as 8.5GB/s, whereas quad-core Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650 chip has to be satisfied with 21.3GB/s bandwidth (or about 5.325GB/s per core). Moreover, dual-processor and multi-processor systems based on multi-core chips also, in case of Intel Corp.’s architecture, have limited memory bandwidth.

Rambus said that dual-channel DDR3 memory sub-system at 1.60GHz can provide “only” 25.6GB/s peak memory bandwidth, whereas its XDR2 can scale towards 102GB/s in case of 128-bit interface. It should be noted, however, that Intel’s code-named Nehalem chips with built-in triple-channel DDR3 controller will have peak bandwidth of up to 38.4GB/s for every physical processor and up to 153.6GB/s of total memory bandwidth for a 4P server system.

While up to 102GB/s bandwidth seems excessive today, if DDR3 clock-speeds start to stagnate at some point in future, while Intel Corp. manages to create an octa-core processor with performance limited only by memory bandwidth, the company may consider using XDR memory for high-performance desktop, workstation or server processors.

Recently Rambus also said that it plans to develop an XDR derivative that would be target handsets

One Laptop Per Child Claims XO Laptop Production Start

One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a non-profit organization launched in 2005 to design, manufacture and distribute laptop computers that are sufficiently affordable for developing countries and are aimed primarily at children, announced that mass production of the XO laptop computer began on Tuesday at Quanta Computer’s manufacturing facility in Changshu, China.

“Today represents an important milestone in the evolution of the One Laptop per Child project. Against all the naysayers and thanks to great partners such as Quanta, we have developed and now manufactured the world’s most advanced and greenest laptop and one designed specifically to instill a passion for learning in children,” said Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman of OLPC.

Taiwan-based Quanta Computer, the world’s largest notebook computer manufacturer, has recently doubled its manufacturing capacity, in part to prepare for the production of the XO laptop from OLPC. On Tuesday, November 6, Quanta initiated production at its new plant in Changshu, Shanghai. The XO laptop unit volumes will ramp up over time, leveraging the newly available capacity in the Changshu plant.

Current OLPC XO laptop features AMD Geode LX-700 processor with 433MHz clock-speed and built-in graphics controller, 256MB of PC-2100 (DDR 266MHz) memory, 1GB NAND flash that substitutes hard disk drive, 7.5” screen with 1200x900 resolution, wireless and wired network adapters as well as integrated webcam, microphone, speakers and so on. Even though initially it was projected that the laptop will cost $100, the final price for the machine is $188.

“We are very proud to be a partner of One Laptop per Child and to start volume manufacturing of the highly innovative XO laptop,” said C.C. Leung, Vice Chairman and President of Quanta Computer. “We believe that the XO laptop will have a transformative power on the future of developing nations.”