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John G. Spooner

Staff Writer, CNET

Nobody’s going to run spreadsheets on their toaster, but AMD still thinks there’s a lot to be gained by outfitting consumer gadgets with the same basic design underlying PC chips.

No. 2 chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices is rolling forward with plans to extend its output of x86–the architecture underneath most PC processors, including AMD’s Athlons–with an extended Geode line of low-power, low-cost processors, Fred Weber, AMD’s chief technology officer, told CNET

Over the next few years, the company plans to introduce a range of new chips designed for jobs such as powering personal media players and set-top boxes.

Other companies, including Intel and Via Technologies, have been similarly expanding the scope of their x86 chips.

AMD, which first disclosed its consumer electronics ambition last November, plans to move into the consumer market by slowly adding to the Geode line, for home multimedia gear, each year.

It will start with a new iteration of its current all-purpose Geode chip, which will offer more performance but use less power. The company will expand the Geode line in the following years by delivering chips tuned for specific jobs during 2006 and 2007, Weber said.

The Geode is currently found primarily in so-called thin clients from companies such as Wyse Technology.

AMD believes that electronics manufacturers will need to use beefier operating systems as they add more functions to their gear. Given the huge amount of software available for the x86 processors that have formed the foundation of PCs for years–not to mention operating systems such as Windows and Linux–AMD believes that manufacturers will switch from chips based on RISC or MIPS architectures to x86.

“The approach we’re going to take for the consumer electronics (market), initially–and I think more over time, because we think it’s very much the right direction–is to start offering x86-based solutions for more and more consumer applications,” Weber said. “I don’t mean jamming a PC processor into a blender. What I mean is designing an appropriate x86 processor for appropriate devices, whether those be portable media devices…home media servers or…the set-top box.”

AMD’s aim to embrace consumer electronics has the potential to boost the company’s revenue and market share as the company carves out new niches using basic chip technology that it has been developing for years. It also has a number of potentially lucrative relationships, as many of the electronics manufacturers that buy AMD’s flash memory chips might also consider its Geode.

AMD will aim for the right mix of performance, power consumption and price with the new Geodes, arguing that the wide availability of x86 software seals the deal. Future Geodes could also be fitted with new technology for things such as AMD’s virtualization technology, which allows a computer to run multiple jobs, Weber said.

However, the strategy is still risky, analysts say. National Semiconductor sought to do essentially the same thing before it fell on hard times and sold the Geode line to AMD.

Meanwhile, rival Intel has also quietly established a plan to sell its x86 chips into CE devices. Companies such as ARM, which designs and licenses RISC processor cores, and IBM, whose PowerPC chips are also RISC-based, are pulling for their own chip designs.

“I think it will make some progress, but I think (AMD is) also overestimating the value of the x86 instruction set in deeply embedded and CE devices,” said Kevin Krewell, editor-in-chief of the Microprocessor Report. “The PC software (Weber) refers to is in general too bloated in terms of code size and complexity for CE devices. Just saying there’s a ton of software out there is meaningless because none of it was written for CE devices. There are plenty of products out there where people have ported Linux to platforms other than x86.”

Although AMD is aiming to offer lower-price x86 chips, cost may remain an issue even if it succeeds, as RISC and MIPS chips have traditionally sold for less than x86 processors.

“If AMD’s willing to close that gap, I think it’ll help a lot,” Krewell said. “It would need to make parts in the $20 range or below. The list price on a TiVo is $199, so how much are they going to pay for a processor to put in that box?”

AMD Chief Executive Hector Ruiz predicted that AMD would soon be selling x86 chips for less than $1 when he introduced the company’s “x86 Everywhere” strategy in November. That lays out AMD’s vision of an x86 chip that can scale from everything from a larger server down to a palmtop device.

Still, AMD believes that it’s already gaining in some areas, including PC-like Internet connectivity devices and set-top boxes. The company’s Personal Internet Communicator, or PIC, an inexpensive, PC-like Internet access device, uses a Geode GX 533 chip.

AMD also offers the Athlon-based Geode NX for devices such as thin clients, point-of-sale systems, kiosks and printers. Its system-on-a-chip Geodes, such as the SC1200 for set-top boxes, are designed to handle all of the functions a given device needs by including a processor core along with a host of controllers needed to run video screens and other peripherals. Weber indicated that AMD’s future Geode plans include such all-in-one chips.

AMD has hedged its bets in some ways by continuing to offer MIPS processors. During January, it unveiled a personal media player concept design based on its Alchemy Au1200 MIPs processor.

“We’re not here to force (the x86) processor on people,” Weber said. “The bulk of the software today is actually MIPS and ARM…so we’re offering those now.

“We believe that over time, the value of x86 will increase, and you’ll see us offer more and more x86 (chips) hitting the price point, the power point, the capability that another architecture might have offered but with the software compatibility,” Weber said.

Even consumer electronics devices that are only dedicated to one job will require more software for connectivity and file sharing–in AMD’s view a reason for them to use x86 chips, Weber predicts. The company will thus continue to add more specialized chips to the Geode clan over time.

“Expect to see things from us–a few new things–each year,” Weber said. “There’s stuff in the works this year for higher performance, a generation of the basic Geode processors that’s actually higher-performance and lower-power.”