Intel's USB 2.0 May Squeeze 1394 Into A PC Niche

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. Intel Corp. sent the world of PC peripheral interfaces spinning Tuesday (Feb. 23) when it announced it was working on a version the Universal Serial Bus that could run faster than 200 Mbits/second and on a future rev of the ATA-66 interface that could act as a Gbit/second serial link. The work could effectively squeeze 1394, once groomed as a primary interface for future desktops, into a niche role in tomorrow's PCs. Work on the so-called USB 2.0 and Future ATA links has been going on for several months before the two projects were publicly announced at the Intel Developers Forum here by Patrick Gelsinger, general manager of Intel's desktop division. Gelsinger said 1394 may become a "niche" technology in tomorrow's PCs, confined to a role as a link to consumer electronics devices.

Less than three years ago, Intel and Microsoft Corp. were still touting USB at 12 Mbits/s and 1394 at 400 Mbits/s as the two primary interfaces for future PC I/O. Asked whether Apple Computer Inc.'s recent royalty claims of as much as a dollar per port against 1394 users had an impact on the decision to eschew 1394, Gelsinger said, "Sure, we were already looking at a new version of USB from a technology and market perspective. [The IP claims] confirmed our strategy." Just last week, a handful of companies including Apple and Intel agreed to create a patent pool for royalty claims for 1394. Gelsinger praised the move, which he said created a framework to resolve IP issues over 1394. "But I can't say those problems are solved," he said.

The new version of USB should be available as a version 1.0 draft at the September Intel Developers Forum, and will appear in PCs in the middle of next year, Gelsinger said. It will sport data-transfer rates between 120 and 240 Mbits/second, he said, although one source said it is already running even faster in lab tests and could ultimately roll out at speeds of up to 300 Mbits/s. At those speeds, USB 2.0 could not only become a much more competitive interface for digital cameras, but might appear in some external hard disk drives as well, according to one source. It will also give a boost to USB as an interface for high-end color printers. "This creates a challenge for 1394 proponents to make the interface compelling," said Carl Stork, director of Windows hardware programs at Microsoft. Besides supporting higher speeds, USB 2.0 will support a broader range of topologies and automate a number of USB functions such as whether it offers power to connected peripherals.

Maxtor Corp. developed a working prototype of a hard-disk drive using 1394 for the emerging Device Bay specification, which aimed to use 1394 as an interface to swappable PC peripherals. But Maxtor shelved the prototype six months ago, according to Spencer Roberts, senior manager of product marketing at Maxtor (Longmont, Colo.). "We don't see Intel or OEMs very interested at this point," he said. Jim Pappas, director of technology initiatives at Intel, echoed those comments. "We had 1394 working in chip-set silicon and couldn't find any buyers for it," Pappas said. "I've been stumping for 1394 for a long time, and it's been a tough row to hoe." By contrast, Richard Coulson, director of I/O architecture at Intel, said a "real consensus is developing" around USB 2.0 and Future ATA.

Coulson said USB 2.0 will add less than a thousand gates to existing USB client chips. However, USB hubs and hosts will add significant complexity to deal with rate matching that will require FIFOs to compress or buffer data. Still, he was optimistic that process technology gains could absorb the extra gates required by the hub and host chips. Lucent, Philips, Compaq, Microsoft, HP and NEC will work with Intel on USB 2.0, which Gelsinger said would replace SCSI as an external drive interface. He also suggested some grey area will emerge between USB 2.0 PC peripherals and 1394 consumer electronics devices.

"We expect 1394 will play a role in connecting consumer electronics devices to the computer which can enhance those devices," Gelsinger said. "But that's something of a niche, and it doesn't make sense to integrate that into our chip sets."As for the Future ATA push, Gelsinger said multiple companies are already working on the technology for a narrow, high performance spec. One source said Future ATA will likely emerge as a serialized interface that leverages the signaling techniques common to Fibre Channel and Gigabit Eeternet, yet is compatible with ATA software and hits Gbit/s data rates. "There's no other alternative I can see for in-the-box I/O storage," said Gelsinger, who said he sees Future ATA going to 2005 and beyond.

Life for 1394
Others were more upbeat about an ongoing role for 1394. A handful of small companies are working on external drives using 1394, and Quantum and Sony have already shown audio/visual drives using 1394, said Michael Teener, chief technology officer of Zayante Inc. (Scotts Valley, Calif.), a 1394 developer. "You will see more of these kinds of things because its a good market for the hard-disk guys," he said.

Conversely, "there are two fundamental problems with USB for consumer electronics devices," Teener said. "It is not peer-to-peer, and it is not truly isochorouous" due to its reliance on a client/hub architecture, he said. Jeff Wolford, senior storage architect at Compaq Computer Corp. (Houston), noted that Compaq already ships 1394 on the motherboard of a high-end consumer system and on a workstation. He said Compaq remains committed to 1394 despite the USB and ATA announcements.

Texas Instruments Inc. (Dallas) is even more bullish. Randy Trost, 1394 product manager for TI, said he sticks by his projection that TI will ship 10 million 1394 chips this year 60 percent of them to PC makers. About four of the top ten PC makers already ship high-end systems with 1394, and four more will start doing so later this year, he said. "I still think there is still a strong opportunity for us in 1394," Trost said. "For high-volume customers we are offering chips at less than $10 and will be offering them for less than $6 in 12 months. At that point they can start being used in lower-cost PCs and we are working on low-power versions for notebooks too."

Source: EE Times


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