From boomers to millennials: the evolution of TV and set-top box chipsets

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The future of television is a hard nut to crack. While the expectations of what a smartphone or a car should deliver have evolved (and continue to change) at a lightning pace in the last decade, the TV is still seen by many as the default black box that lights up the living room in the evening.

SampoK-1901For many born in the 1970s, this was what TV looked like

So given this preconception, how do you break past the confinements of the tried and tested form factor and reshape the living room experience without alienating consumers?

The five stages of TV evolution

If we look back at the last twenty years, we can observe a pattern of consumer electronics companies experimenting with the concept of the TV quite a lot. The transitional phase (let’s call it TV 1.0) started with the move from analogue to digital, followed by the emergence of HD TV (TV 2.0).  The industry then experimented with apush to bring the cinematic 3D experience to the living room (TV 3.0); however, 3D TVs had a very limited appeal (my colleague Chris Longstaff offers some very compelling reasons why here) and consumer adoption was low, so by the end of the 2000s it was time to try something new.

3D_TV_1617463c3D TV adoption among consumers was lackluster

The next stage (TV 4.0) involved equipping TVs with chips that integrated more powerful application processors which opened the way for community-backed, predominantly Linux-based operating systems to be ported to this new wave of devices. However, the user experience was still clunky – many smart TVs required a keyboard or complicated remotes that got in the way of the primary purpose of the device: watching TV.

We’re now entering the TV 5.0 era. What’s great about the present is that we’re in a middle of a perfect storm of technologies that are ready to influence the home entertainment market. On one side, we have new experiences to deliver, like 360 videos and virtual reality; on the other hand, high-dynamic range 4K and H.265-capable chipsets have reached the sweet spot in terms of price point and performance.

4K HDR TVHigh-dynamic range 4K TVs are becoming more affordable

This is important because it means that the TVs of tomorrow will enable a lot more services than your basic broadcast-only channels. A lot has been written about streaming for example, and how it has been dramatically changing TV viewing habits of millions of consumers.


TV OEMs are also experimenting with tablet controllers, moving the smart element of smart TV from the TV to the device in your hand, thereby creating a dumb but nevertheless superb 4K HDR screen that will live in the home for several years to come.

What’s in a box?

Meanwhile, the set-top box market is experiencing a similar evolution. A general slowdown in product iteration cycles, coupled with the cost benefits of designing and manufacturing in the Far East, has led to Taiwan becoming a global powerhouse in STB chip design and manufacturing.

A typical set-top boxA typical set-top box

At the same time, the meteoric rise of OTT (over-the-top) streaming services like Netflix or Hulu created a viable way for internet-connected media players to replace the operator-supplied set-top boxes – a phenomenon called cord cutting. Notable examples of such streaming media boxes include the Xiaomi Mi Box or the Amazon Fire TV, both of which have been selling in significant numbers and use PowerVR GPUs.

This brings me to ALi Corporation, a virtual unknown in the mind of the average consumer buying TVs or set-top boxes. However, the Taiwanese company is a pioneer in the home entertainment space, widely recognized as the world’s third largest set-top box chipset provider behind Broadcom and STMicroelectronics (the latter announced it was pulling out of the STB market earlier this year).

Ali M1535

ALi’s latest MIPS-based SoC supports the two technologies I mentioned earlier: the H.265 compression codec and 4K (Ultra HD) resolutions. In addition, the new SoC integrates ALi’s latest advanced security engine for CAS and DRM compliance – a vital requirement for streaming services like Netflix, HBO or Hulu. This means the next time you’re offered a set-top box  when you sign up for a TV subscription, there is a high likelihood that the product you will be considering is one that is MIPS-based.

MIPS CPUs are powering many of today’s most popular digital televisions and set-top boxes, including devices shipping from Comcast and TiVo in the US, others such as Sky in the UK. We’ve been working closely with ALi to ensure OEMs have access to the best possible performance from our MIPS CPUs and therefore bring consumers closer to the realization of the TV 5.0 era.

Alex Voica

Alex Voica

Before deciding to pursue his dream of working in technology marketing, Alexandru held various engineering roles at leading semiconductor companies in Europe. His background also includes research in computer graphics and VR at the School of Advanced Studies Sant'Anna in Pisa. You can follow him on Twitter @alexvoica.

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