Friday, December 02, 2005

The portable revolution

John Donovan
Portable Design November, 2005
Author(s) : John Donovan

Welcome to the 10th anniversary issue of Portable Design. The last decade has seen tremendous growth and change in the portable electronics market. Since 1995, we’ve moved from 1G cell phones on which you could only make phone calls (how primitive!) to 3G phones that can take pictures, play videos, and, yes, call home. Processing speeds have exploded, form factors have imploded, and even mice and keyboards are now wireless. Portability is the new “killer app.”


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John Donovan
Portable Design November, 2005
Author(s) : John Donovan

Ten years and counting

Welcome to the 10th anniversary edition of Portable Design. Remember 1995? The Atlanta Braves beat the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series. The Eagles, Elton John, and (some things don’t change) Madonna topped the pop charts. Microsoft joined the browser wars with Internet Explorer, and Sun launched Java. Fast notebook computers had 486 or the new Pentium processors and weighed 7-8 lb. First generation cell phones only let you make phone calls; “2G” phones-enabling you to receive small amounts of data-only started to arrive the next year.

The last 10 years have seen explosive growth in the electronics industry, now one of the main drivers of the world economy. The consumer electronics segment currently makes up more than half the industry, with portable devices being a major part of almost every sector. Portable devices used to be underpowered versions of desktop ones. Now cell phones and portable media players are not only driving innovation, they’ve become major development platforms themselves.

The growth and diffusion of computing power also has been remarkable. This year, six to seven billion embedded processors were produced, more than the population of the world. Of these, CPUs were only 2% of the market; the rest were embedded in everything from toys to toasters to Mars rovers. Ten years ago, you could buy a service manual and a cheap socket set and fix your own car. Today’s high-end cars may contain 60-80 embedded controllers, multiple networks, and thousands of dollars worth of electronics. Try to even change your own battery and the whole system crashes.

Chips have, of course, gotten smaller and much more complex. The VLSI begat the SoC begat the programmable SoC. FPGA vendors flourished to address time-to-market problems as well as diverse and changing data and regulatory standards. Over the past decade, a large industry has sprung up around licensable IP that you can drop into your SoC or FPGA. No one any longer has the time, much less the expertise, to design a complex system from scratch.

With the ascendancy of high-performance portable devices, power management has become a sophisticated system-level discipline. Getting 150-hr standby time from a cell-phone battery or five years from a Zigbee mesh network using mercury coin cells is no small trick.

The biggest change in electronic design over the past decade may be in the field of RF. Today, most portable electronic devices contain one or more RF technologies built-in. The rise of digital RF has given rise to complex modulation and transmission techniques, which designers of portable products must now also master or at least understand.

Over the past decade, Portable Design has been the only resource devoted exclusively to the needs of engineers designing portable applications. We thank you for your loyalty and look forward to doing an even better job for you over the next decade.

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Portable Design November, 2005
Author(s) : Peter Henry
Revolution in personal connectivity

Peter Henry, vice presidnet of portable power, National Semiconductor

If I were traveling 10 years ago and I wanted to share an experience with my family back at home, I would call them from my hotel room at the end of the day and tell them about the wonderful meal I had or the spectacular sights I’d seen. Today, we take instant communication for granted. We should be thrilled by the fact that the world is closer than ever before, but instead we are frustrated by the few times that our mobile handsets don’t work as expected.

The greatest breakthroughs in portable technology are social. The “killer app” for portable electronics sneaked up on us while we were enjoying a level of personal connectivity unprecedented in history and only dreamed of just a short time ago.

Instead of that end-of-the-day call from a hotel room, I’ll take a picture of whatever it is that excites me and send it instantly by MMS or email. With wireless messaging, we have the ability to stay in contact around the world, without interrupting the flow of our lives. I might make a fast call from the car to arrange a business follow-up or just to tell someone I love them. I can check my email to see how a contract negotiation went or use SMS to coordinate a restaurant to meet a customer and discuss a joint project.

An incredible amount of technology has been harnessed to provide these capabilities. No single breakthrough allowed us to surf the web, send movies, and have conversations wherever we are, using a pocket-sized device.

Radios that weighed several pounds have been shrunk to a few ounces. Power sources that needed recharging after a few hours now work for a few days. A modern smart phone has the processing power of a 1998 personal computer.

Semiconductor packaging makes it possible to assemble more components in less board space than ever before. Chip-scale packages such as microSMD replaced SOT and MSOP packages for high-performance analog functions. BGAs enabled space-efficient, high-pin-count processors, basebands, and integrated systems. Now the microArray package makes it possible to put 100- pin devices in only 25 mm2.

Of course, tiny packages are useless without advances in process technology to enable smaller devices with greater functionality on-chip. The relentless advance of process technology over the last decade from 0.8- and 1-μm features to 45 nm has allowed us to realize incredibly complex digital communication systems and application processing capability previously possible only on large boards with a collection of many discrete devices.

To reach the broad population segments, our industry had to make these devices attractive and easy to use. It’s no coincidence that a vast upsurge in consumer adoption of mobile handsets coincided with the breakthrough introduction of attractive color displays.

Outstanding audio quality, moving from voice to full music-capable stereo systems rounds out a great user experience and enables manufacturers to differentiate one handset from another. Add a camera and the worldwide connection allows both sight and sound. With a tiny hard drive, a whole collection of images and music is available at my fingertips, anywhere I may find myself.

The revolution in personal connectivity required attractive functional devices available at attractive price points. Factors contributing to lower-cost manufacturing include advances in high-speed test systems, design-for-test, increasing manufacturing efficiency, and supply and logistics systems capable of handling more semiconductors in a month than were previously produced in a year.

And that brings us to the last great breakthrough that’s allowed the new portable handset to change our lives. To make a device truly portable, it needs to perform effectively for a long duration without its batteries needing to be charged. The greatest breakthroughs have been less in functions or capability than in developing energy-efficient ways to perform those functions.

The most exciting time in the portable industry is still to come. We haven’t come close to finishing breakthroughs in portable medical systems, data storage, and wide-area networking that will allow portable electronics to become intensely personal aids to our daily life. We have a hint of that future now, with the greatest breakthrough of all: that ability to connect as business associates, friends, and loved ones-anytime, anywhere.

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Portable Design November, 2005
Author(s) : David Bell
Miniaturization drives handheld-product growth

Dave Bell, president, Linear Technology

The sales of handheld electronic devices have grown dramatically during the last decade, and analog ICs have played a major role in this revolution. Products such as cellular phones, MP3 players, digital cameras, and satellite radios have helped drive growth in the worldwide electronics business. The success of these handheld devices is a worldwide phenomenon as consumers from Shanghai to Chicago can now be seen with cell phones on their belts and wires dangling from their ears. Because of their ubiquity, such products have also become a dominant force in the worldwide electronics business, with consumer electronics now accounting for more than half the worldwide electronics sales.

The cell phone is rapidly becoming the platform of choice as PDA features, cameras, and MP3 players are embedded. The dramatic reduction in size and cost of electronics has made this revolution possible. Just a decade ago, a cell phone could barely fit in a pocket. Today, the newest cell phones can fit in your wallet and contain features unimaginable 10 years ago.

Analog ICs have helped enable this amazing functional density. A decade ago, 8-pin DIP packages were common, and an SO-8 IC was considered small. Today, the same function probably resides in a 2×2-mm package, and the performance of that function is far greater than was available in 1995. And despite the fact that all signals are now processed and stored using digital techniques, all interaction with the real world remains analog. Dealing with audio, video, radio signals, and power conversion still inherently requires analog functions. As a result, there is more analog circuitry in a modern digital phone than was present in the analog phone of a decade ago.

Not only have the analog IC packages themselves become smaller, but the number and size of external components have also shrunk. Discrete components such as resistors and capacitors are now a small fraction of the size they were a decade ago. In the case of power management, increased switching frequencies have also allowed the reduction in external-component sizes. At the same time, speakers, microphones, LCD displays, batteries, etc., have also become much thinner and smaller.

The incredible variety of analog functions available as building blocks has also helped accelerate product development while enabling tiny products. Even smaller and more feature-rich handheld products are being enabled by multifunction ASSPs that further increase density by combining commonly used functions together in very small packages. This trend does not appear to be slowing, and newer ASSPs integrate the functions needed by very specific product types.

Where will these trends take us during the next decade? I believe the demand for mobility and increasing functionality will continue and become an even more worldwide phenomenon than it is today. Cell phones with TV capability, huge amounts of video storage, GPS navigation, and high-speed data communications will become widespread, even in developing areas like Indonesia and Vietnam. These ever-growing features and sales numbers will continue to fuel the development of even smaller and more powerful analog ICs.

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Portable Design November, 2005
Author(s) : Rick King
Merging worlds of digital and RF

Rick King, vice president, real time spectrum analyzers, Tektronix

The biggest change in electronic design over the past decade has been in the field of RF. It is now common for a portable electronic device to have several RF technologies built-in. For example, many new laptops and even some PDAs have both WLAN and Bluetooth interfaces. That is a lot of RF to be in a small portable electronic device.

The rapid development of these wireless-enabled devices is creating a world in which wireless is everywhere. Consumers are no longer satisfied with just a cell phone. They want instant access to email, the Internet, video, and much more. The technological development that is enabling these demands is digital RF.

Although previous generations of wireless devices have contained both digital and RF sections, they were usually subsections separated from each other. Now, they are becoming more integrated. The marriage of digital and RF technologies is resulting in more flexible, agile RF transmitters and receivers capable of handling more complex RF signals. The RF and digital domains have merged to create a new digital RF world.

At the system level, the technical benefit of digital RF is it allows for more efficient use of the frequency spectrum and increased data throughput. These benefits are helping with the rapid deployment and acceptance of new technologies such as WLAN and Zigbee. That is fueling the drive toward a “wireless everywhere” world as evidenced by consumer and industrial applications like radio frequency identification (RFID) tags for inventory control, keyless entry and satellite radio systems for cars, wireless game controllers, GPS receivers, and wireless LANs.

But these advances have also brought complexity, resulting in often unpredictable design environments. Signals are present one moment, absent the next, and variable over time. Now you see them, now you don’t. That is a dramatic change in the relatively stable RF environment found a decade ago. Most existing tools today such as traditional spectrum and vector analyzers were designed to address the needs of this earlier generation of RF devices.

Complex transmission techniques help RF devices avoid interference, maximize data transfer, and oftentimes evade detection. But that and the high levels of design integration make the job of troubleshooting faults at the final device integration stage of development much more difficult and time-consuming.

The key to pinpointing the source of any transient RF problem is timing. Today’s digital RF systems all rely on signals that can change their frequency and modulation characteristics in real time. Understanding the relationship between the frequency, modulation, and time domains during these transitions is the key to pinpointing the source of transient RF problems.

This evolution to digital RF has highlighted the limitations of traditional test instruments. Analyzers that address wireless everywhere needs enable engineers to quickly pinpoint the source of transient problems by triggering on an anomaly, seamlessly capturing it into memory and analyzing the information with time-correlated multidomain views. Real time trigger, capture, and analysis enable engineers to view RF signal instabilities and transients that they never knew existed.

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