Cell Regza Outmuscles Intel's Atom CE4100

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Toshiba raised the bar for rival TV vendors and set-top box makers on Monday, showing off its new Cell Regza television, which harnesses the Cell processor to decode and record multiple high-definition video files -- a capability far beyond what upcoming systems based on Intel's Atom CE4100 processors will be able to deliver.

The Cell Regza has two main components, a 55-inch television and a set-top box that houses the Cell processor and related components, which include eight high-definition television tuners and 3TB of hard-disk space. The system is capable of decoding and displaying eight 1080p high-definition television channels simultaneously, while also storing every program shown on these eight channels over the last 26 hours.

Getting all this processing power into a box that's quiet enough to be used in a living room wasn't easy.

"The heat problem was the number one issue for us," said Shigenori Tokumitsu, a TV technology executive at Toshiba. To resolve the issue, Toshiba ran heat simulations to determine the optimal design and placement of the heatsink and cooling fans to dissipate the most heat with the least amount of noise, he said.

Toshiba declined to disclose specific details about the amount of heat generated inside the Cell-based Cell Regza box, but said the platform generates less heat than a typical computer running an x86 processor.

To reduce the amount of noise generated by the Cell Regza's cooling fans, Toshiba used fans with larger blades, which allows them to spin more slowly while still moving the same amount of air as fans with smaller blades that are running at a higher speed, Tokumitsu said. The result is a set-top box that meets noise standards for silence in a hospital, he said.

At the same time, the Cell processor offers in the Cell Regza substantially more processing muscle than a typical PC -- let alone an Atom-powered computer -- can muster. Toshiba estimated the Cell processor used in the Cell Regza Box is roughly 10 times more powerful than an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a chip found in many desktop PCs and laptops.

The performance difference between the Cell Regza and chips like the Atom CE4100 could be a problem for rival TV makers or set-top box makers that want to match the Cell Regza's ability to handle high-definition video. The Atom, intended as an inexpensive, low-power chip, was never designed to handle multiple high-definition video streams.

Current versions of the Atom struggle to decode a single high-definition video file. With the upcoming 1.2GHz Atom CE4100, announced last month, Intel says the chips can decode two 1080p MPEG2 or H.264 video streams or a single MPEG4.2 stream, but that falls far short of the eight video streams that the Cell Regza handles with ease. More powerful chips, like Intel's Nehalem processor family, come closer, but their cooling requirements make them too noisy for living room use.

But Atom has one clear advantage over Cell Regza: price.

Toshiba introduced Cell Regza in a bid to differentiate itself from rival TV makers like Sharp and Sony. While LCD TV prices have generally fallen over time, Toshiba is aiming for the high end of the market and Cell Regza is priced accordingly. The TVs will sell for around ¥1 million (US$11,175) -- nearly double the cost of other 55-inch LCD TVs sold in Japan.

Atom-based set-top boxes will sell for far less than Cell Regza, even if they don't come close to matching its multimedia capabilities. However, the capabilities of the Cell Regza will soon expand.

Starting next year, Cell Regza will add the ability to convert high-definition video into 3D. Further down the road, Toshiba will add the ability for Cell Regza to upscale 1080p high-definition video, which has a resolution of 1,920 pixels by 1,080 pixels, to 4K2K, which offers resolution of 3,840 pixels by 2,160 pixels. Cell Regza TVs with both features were on display ahead of the Ceatec exhibition, which opens in Chiba, Japan, on Tuesday.

In addition, the price of Cell Regza is likely to moderate somewhat as Toshiba expands the Cell Regza range with models that have smaller screens, such as a 37-inch version that will be on display at Ceatec.

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