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Google TV transplants Android on Intel

Anti-Apple ARM replacement

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Google TV is based on Android, the (kinda) open source Google operating system originally built for ARM-equipped cell phones. But the imminent television settop platform doesn't run on ARM. Google has ported Android to Intel's CE4100, an Atom-based system-on-a-chip designed specifically for consumer electronics devices.

According to Wilfred Martis, general manager of Intel's retail consumer electronics business, it was Google who approached the chip maker about using the Atom-based SoC, which is set for use in other TV-centric devices including D-Link's Boxee Box and a contraption from Telecom Italia. "We were building the part, and they picked it to run Google TV because it had what they wanted," Martis tells The Reg. "They came to us."

The CE4100 surrounds the Atom core with two 1080p video decoders, two audio digital signal processors (DSPs), a 3D graphics engine, a security engine, and I/O. Martis says the chip's great talent is its knack for synchronizing audio and video. "You have to get audio and video in solid sync," he says. "On a PC, the tolerance level is much lower. Consumers tolerate [problems] because it's a PC. On a handheld, it's the same thing. They don't tolerate it on a TV screen."

With Google TV, he says, the SoC's core is reserved for running the OS and local applications, while audio and video tasks are offloaded to the surrounding circuitry.

Intel first entered the consumer electronics market in 2003, purposing its PC processors. MSN TV boxes, for instance, used Intel silicon. And in 2007, it introduced SoCs built expressly for consumer electronics devices. These XScale chips turned up in settop boxes across Asia, including in China and Taiwan.

In 2008, Intel introduced a chip based on the Pentium-M, and the CE4100 is their first consumer electronics chip based on Atom. Manufactured on a 45nm process, it will make its stateside debut by the end of the month when Logitech ships its Google TV settop, the Logitech Revue. The chip also sits at the heart of Sony's Google TV setup, due to be announced next week. And though Intel is partnering with other manufacturers on Google TV devices, Martis declined to name those outfits.

Whereas Google is moving from ARM to Intel for its TV contraption, Apple is moving in the opposite direction. The first Apple TV used an Intel chip, but in switching the device to iOS — the operating system that runs the iPhone and the iPad — the Jobsian cult is also switching to ARM, the compute core in Cupertino's A4 chip. But Martis wouldn't rule out an Intel return to Apple TV. "Is there something there longterm? Maybe," he says. "It depends on which way they go."

Apple's device takes a very different approach to the so-called connected TV. Google TV puts Mountain View's desktop Chrome browser on top of Android, providing unfettered access to the interwebs and — eventually — running any number of third-party local applications. Apple TV is a walled prison garden that gives you access only to stuff Steve Jobs approves of.

Unlike Google TVs, Apple TV only does 720p video. But it's priced at only $99. The Logitech Revue is $299.99, a price tag you can't help but chuckle at. Martis says this has nothing to do with Intel. "The reason some of these boxes have high prices is not because of Intel," he says. "We are using budgetary pricing." ®

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