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09/2013 • www.ECNmag.com
approach is that the software development tools
for GP-CPUs are easy to use and are familiar to
developers. As one example, a PC with a frame
capture card can capture video, compress it,
and stream it onto a network in real-time. Small,
“low-power,” inexpensive single board comput-
ers are widely available. Using such components,
video processing systems that don’t appear to be
a PC to the end user can be designed. Sometimes
a video encoding/processing system can be
assembled without designing any hardware at all.
The more diverse the tasks that must be
performed simultaneously with encoding, the
more compelling a GP-CPU approach can be.
The wide availability of third-party software to
implement numerous other functions the video
processing system may require (such as web
servers, databases, etc.) make GP-CPU systems
attractive and flexible when the device must do
more than just compress video. The time to mar-
ket for GP-CPU solutions can also be quite fast.
So what are the disadvantages? An important one is cost. PC-based systems tend to be
more expensive than custom designed hardware solutions. Furthermore, even low-power
PC solutions have a higher power consumption
than other alternatives. As a final consideration, when real-time encoding is required,
these systems tend to have lower image quality.
One reason for this is the limited range they
can search for motion compensation, and their
general inability to support 1080P60 compression. Motion compensated prediction is critical
to the performance of algorithms such as H.264
and HEVC, and is an extremely demanding
System on a Chip (SoC) Solutions
SoC solutions allow all the components of
a complete video processing system to be
assembled on one chip at a compelling price.
The SoC sub-systems are flexible enough to
allow a variety of image processing functions
to be implemented, including encoding. As
one example, TI’s 8168 has multiple video
input interfaces. It also contains dedicated
hardware compression engines, a DSP, and a
general purpose ARM processor. Its 3-D GPU
allows sophisticated graphical interfaces. APIs
are available to simplify operations like pic-
ture-in-picture processing, alpha blending
of two images, etc. The ARM core presents a
familiar Linux programming environment to
developers, and drivers are available for most
of the sub-systems. Overall power consump-
tion is lower than that of a GP-CPU approach,
making SoC solutions attractive for mobile
So what are the disadvantages? Developers
will find that the software base on which they
are building presents a higher learning curve.
More customization is required than for a
GP-CPU system. When using SoC’s, the need
to design hardware is unavoidable, implying a
longer time to market and a higher NRE.
Custom ASICs can be viewed as SoCs highly
optimized for a particular video application.
This approach promises the highest quality
compression at the lowest cost. Ambarella, for
example, has focused on camera applications
while Magnum Semiconductor has focused on
broadcast video encoding. Custom ASICs offer
special support for features that are specific
to the market niche they serve; this can save
a developer time when putting together a
complete system solution. A chip targeted
at cameras may support image stabilization,
for example, while one targeted at broadcast
encoding may have special features to make
it easy to insert closed caption information
into the compressed stream. Video quality is
often high because dedicated hardware for
operations like motion compensation can be
included on the chip. The power consumption is usually quite attractive.
The disadvantages? From a developer’s
perspective, it may be hard to get the support
you need from the company selling the ASIC.
Often, if you can’t make a compelling case
that you will buy huge quantities, the supplier will not be willing to sell them to you.
Also, the custom nature of the hardware may
require driver development if the hardware’s
full functionality is not supported by the
ASIC vendor’s software. This can add expense
and complexity to the overall design.
FPGAs are attractive when a custom solution
is needed for a lower volume market niche.
Although FPGA solutions are generally not
the cheapest or the lowest power approach,
they allow the exact features needed to be
quickly assembled into a hardware solution.
One attractive aspect of FPGAs is many low
latency video encoding IP cores are available.
If FPGA processing is already necessary for
your project, consider this approach. ECN