The unveiling of the BCM7445 is undoubtedly the most exciting news to come out of the Broadcom camp for CES 2013. It is the fourth generation STB (set-top-box) SoC from Broadcom and the industry's first 28nm product for the market. Before going into the details of the BCM7445, we present a couple of subsections to provide a little bit of background about 4K video and related technology. If you are interested in learning about Broadcom's 4Kp60 capable BCM7445 alone, feel free to skip right ahead.

The Need for 4K

One of the main challenges being faced by the TV industry after the failed 3D experiment is a way to stimulate the consumer base. In this context, the 4K experience is proving to be quite effective. Journalists may argue about whether 4K makes sense for the living room or not, but the truth is that increasing the resolution of the content reaching the consumers is the first step towards an immersive entertainment solution in the future.

Unlike 3D, 4K has legitimate industry uses in the medical imaging and IP surveillance industry. This gives an impetus for silicon vendors to create 4K-capable products without worrying about whether the consumer industry might accept it or not. In addition, given that there is nothing to dislike about 4K at this point other than the price tag, it looks like 4K will gain much better acceptance compared to 3D technology amongst the consumers.

4K: Should You Be an Early Adopter?

Last year, we reviewed the AMD 7750 and GT 640 from a HTPC perspective and were able to get both cards to drive a 4K projector (the Sony VPL VW1000ES) using the following 4K resolutions: 3840x2160 at 30 Hz and 4096x2160 at 24 Hz. Simply speaking, higher refresh rates are not possible because the frequency of operation of the HDMI controller / PHY doesn't provide enough bandwidth. A refresh rate of 50 / 60 Hz is required to provide smooth movement in scenes with fast transitions.

HDMI 2.0 (the name going around the industry, despite the HDMI forum's decision to do away with version numbers for all HDMI products) is going to be ratified soon, and will apparently simply double the operating frequency of the controller / PHY to provide enough bandwidth to send across uncompressed 4Kp60 video. The high cost of current 4K solutions is already a deterrent, and if one is hesitating to jump in right now, these facts should serve as an incentive to wait for some more time.

Contrary to popular belief, there is really no dearth of 4K content since most professional videographing solutions have been 4K capable for a number of years. It is a simple matter of bringing that content in the right format to the end-consumer. H.264 emerged as the codec of choice (and replaced MPEG-2 due to better compression efficiency) when moving from SD to HD. However, both H.264 and MPEG-2 co-exist in the Blu-ray standard for HD content. Similarly, H.265 (HEVC) is expected to become the codec of choice (and replace H.264 due to better compression efficiency) when moving from HD to 4K. However, consumers can expect a lot of the initial 4K end-user content to be in H.264 format (such as the current 4K videos on YouTube or the 4K videos being shot on the GoPro Hero 3 Black). All said, a future-proof 4K solution should have the capability to decode 4K content in both H.264 and H.265 (HEVC) formats.

Broadcom's BCM7445

The BCM7445 is a STB solution aimed at making its way into service provide boxes (such as those from Comcast or Dish). In addition to implementing all the necessary security measures for a conditional access system, the SoC also integrates a programmable multi-format decoder (including H.265 / HEVC) and the ability to transcode up to four 1080p30 streams in real-time.

The master processor in the SoC is the Brahma15, a quad-core Cortex A15 configuration running at up to 1.5 GHz to provide 21000 DMIP performance. The configuration has TrustZone, NEON and virtualization support. Plenty of performance is needed to run Broadcom's Nexus and Trellis multi-framework software interfaces which allow different client technologies to operate in a seamless manner.

Broadcom refused to divulge power consumption details (a very important aspect since set top boxes happen to be one of the worst offenders when it comes to home energy consumption), but did indicate that their platform supports on-chip power management to power down unused blocks in the chip as applicable.

We asked Broadcom whether the appearance of the Cortex A15 in a STB SoC marked the beginning of the end for MIPS in the STB space. They were quick to point out that they continue to be solidly behind MIPS for multiple segments of the STB market and indicated that it was one of their MIPS-based STB platforms (BCM7356 in the Samsung SMT E-5015) that had obtained official Android 4.0 certification recently.

Samples of the BCM7445 are available now with volume production scheduled for mid-2014. This should give the 4K market plenty of time to mature. We will visit the Broadcom booth at CES and see the 4Kp60 demo in person. I am definitely going to ask them about the modifications they had to do in the HDMI controller for the demo.

In 4K technology, the TV / video industry has come up with something worthy of a consumer's serious consideration. With its 4Kp60 HEVC decoding capabilities, Broadcom's BCM7445 fills a very important gap in the video delivery pipeline for the acceleration of 4K adoption.

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  • Activate: AMD - Tuesday, January 8, 2013 - link

    "HDMI 2.0 (the name going around the industry, despite the HDMI forum's decision to do away with version numbers for all HDMI products)"
    Why do away with version numbers? This seems like a recipe for confusing the hell out of uninformed consumers. Any rube can figure out that 2>1, but how are they supposed to know that their HDMI-equipped receiver doesn't have the right version of HDMI? It might not be a big issue now, but when 4K gains a little more traction and theres HDMI 2.0 stuff being sold along non-4k capable HDMI equipment, it'll be a mess.

    Also, why haven't they standardized a resolution for 4k?
  • nathanddrews - Tuesday, January 8, 2013 - link

    I spent almost two hours watching The Avengers 3-D on Sony's 84-inch 4K XBR-84X900 in the Manhattan Sony Style store over Thanksgiving weekend. Oddly enough, it was stashed downstairs in a corner room with no signs saying it was there. I had to ask three people before someone even knew what I was talking about! It was a thing of beauty. I'm not a fan of 3-D in general (the flicker is horrid), but this TV sold me on passive, full-resolution 3-D. Even switching to its 2-D mode was great.

    Here's the thing, though. 4K is just one of the two UHD standards being pushed and developed. 8K @ 120fps gear is already being shown at trade shows next to 4K gear and the asian manufacturers are obviously not sitting still on 4K. 8K is already part of the Rec 2020 spec and is moving forward toward broadcast by Japan's NHK. Naturally, 8K will be more cost-prohibitive than 4K, but the same was true of 1080p vs 720p. It may take 7 years for 8K to be cheap enough, but it took 7 years for 1080p to be cheap as well.
  • Death666Angel - Tuesday, January 8, 2013 - link

    Hm, when I started looking for an LCD TV (2008) 1080p was fractionally more expensive than 720p solutions (which used 1366x768).
    And isn't there always "the next thing" to look out for...? When 4k gets here it will be much cheaper than 8k for quite a while and while 8k is being tested (none of these resolutions is particularly "new"), that doesn't translate to faster adoption, cheap prices or anything like you seem to imply. :)
  • nathanddrews - Tuesday, January 8, 2013 - link

    Yeah, I fully acknowledge that we won't know for sure until 8K sets start hitting stores, but I do know for a fact that Japan is pushing 8K adoption hard - the display and the OTA transmission tech. It's not like we saw 4K 6 years before 8K - these standards have been rolled out near simultaneously with hardware to show within 1-2 years apart. Actual production isn't far behind.

    It's totally my opinion - I'd like to think it's an educated one - that 4K will be a stopgap and quickly be replaced by 8K - at least in the living room/HT. I'm sure 4K will continue in computer monitors, laptops, tablets, and probably even some crazy smartphones for a good long while.

    Should we see who wins the bet 5 years from now? LOL
  • CaedenV - Tuesday, January 8, 2013 - link

    The problem with 8K (for a home at least) is a matter of where you are going to put it?
    Seriously, If you sit across an average 15' room from your TV, and had it set at a 'retina' resolution for that distance then you are talking about a TV that is taller than your average 8' ceiling, and more than 20' across! That is truly massive, and there is no way I am going to be caught lifting such a thing (this is where projectors come in handy).

    I think we will see 4K become the standard for in-home use. A few rich people will get 8K to have their cinema wall, or to simply say that they have it, but 4K is plenty of resolution across a room to make an 80+" TV a 'retina' display.

    Personally, I am excited for the 4K revolution to hit simply because I will be able to get a ~30" 4K computer monitor with the same print-like visuals I get on my phone, and do away with things like AA in games because the pixels will be finer than the jaggies.
  • nathanddrews - Tuesday, January 8, 2013 - link

    In my current configuration, I project 1080p at 110". It looks great starting about 6' away and I normally sit about 7-8' away. *gasp* I don't follow the rules on screen size calculators!!

    However, I would rather project 8K at 175" - or maybe over 200" in another HT build if I build an addition. The great thing about 8K is that it is just about transparent to 70mm/65mm film. As more and more directors shoot IMAX or move to higher and higher resolution digital, 4K just won't cut it. (Doesn't cut it now, IMO.)

    I'm not rich, but I will have 8K projection before 2020.
  • danjw - Tuesday, January 8, 2013 - link

    Last I knew Blu-ray adoption is still under DVD. So why would anyone think that 4K is what the average consumer wants? I just don't see it. Sure, it might be a better resolution, but if the average Joe can't tell the difference, there won't be much take up on the consumer side.
  • Pneumothorax - Tuesday, January 8, 2013 - link

    Not only that, but the horrible compression that cable co's put on 720p/1080i signals is already pretty bad. I don't know how much 4K with H.265 can fix that.
  • FeelLicks - Tuesday, January 8, 2013 - link

    That is because back in the DVD days you didn't have online options like iTunes/Amazon or streaming options such as Hulu/Netflix, etc.

    I think it is pretty safe to say the average consumer wants 720p/1080p minimum these days. And I can def see that move to 4K depending on prices.
  • name99 - Tuesday, January 8, 2013 - link

    Blu-ray adoption has been slow, NOT because people don't want 1080p movies but because
    (a) they don't want to be gouged in paying for them. Until recently, Blu-ray discs cost a LOT more than DVDs.
    (b) the DRM on them is even more hassle and more painful than DVDs.

    A more interesting data point would be to compare, on iTunes, how many people buy/rent content in SD vs HD format.
    I don't know if Apple has ever released those numbers.

    I think playing the "consumers can't tell the difference" card is dumb. People said the same thing (go back and look) about SD vs HD. People said the same thing about retina-quality displays. 1080p on a 42" screen (what I have) is obviously not as crisp as real life, even what viewed from a few feet away. The issue is not "no-one can tell the quality difference", the issue is what content will be available, at what price, under what conditions.

    The first big problem is broadcast. There is no obvious 4K broadcast plan, and given how badly the cable co's handle HD, don't rely on them as a source of 4K content.
    So discs? Good luck with that dream. Sony may feel they want a near-death experience all over again shipping Blu-Ray-4K (or whatever they're called) drives in PS4s, and charging $50 for the discs, but I suspect even fewer people will bite than with Blu-Ray.
    So it comes down to network delivery. Which means
    (a) how many people have a good enough internet connection?
    (b) who has an h.265 decoder in some sort of box?

    Which in turn (IMHO) means that nothing REAL happens until Apple feels like making it happen. Apple will, one day, bless the whole enterprise, announcing 4K content in iTunes store, h.265 decoders in the newest iOS devices (and, maybe via some sort of HW + using the GPU, in macs), HDMI2 output, maybe even retina iMacs so they can display 4K content without shrinking it down.

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