The market for 8-bit processors is far from glamorous, but it's also far from fading. Shipments continue to rise, and the breakdown of old performance barriers should help keep growth on track.
Vendors have cracked through the 64-kbit memory barrier imposed by the venerable 8051 core that's been a mainstay of the 8-bit world for decades. Chipmakers are shipping parts that have more memory. At the same time, they're increasing the number of peripheral cores and I/O lines that can be put on a controller.
"Higher capability 8-bit chips are important because they get the 8-bits into new applications. They're cheaper than 16s or 32s, and people can keep using the 8-bit software they've got," says Tony Massimini, chief of technology at Semico Research Corp., a Phoenix, AZ market researcher. Switching from an 8-bit to a 16-bit architecture "is not simple," he adds.
Vendors note that the 8-bit bus doesn't have any addressing limits, though the 8051's barriers have led many to believe there are limits. "We've got devices with 128 kbytes of memory, and we have some 100- and 128-pin parts on our road map," says Lucio Di Jasio, Product Marketing Manager, Advanced Microcontroller Architecture Division at Microchip Technology Inc. (Chandler, AZ).
STMicroelectronics of Lexington, MA recently unveiled its Turbo line, which houses up to 288 kbytes of memory. The 10 MIPS part "can compete in the 8-bit realm and extend the 8-bit market," says Mark Rootz, product marketing engineer at STMicroelectronics of Lexington, MA. The additional I/O lines can be used to address peripherals such as CAN cores and analog to digital converters.
While 128 kbytes of memory sounds low compared to the PC world, it's enough for many tasks, including washing machine displays or voice enunciators in cars or medical equipment. "That memory can hold 87 pages of text or 16 seconds of voice," Di Jasio says.
While some vendors feel this is a booming market, one major player in the 8-bit world says that users who need more memory are often wiser if they shift to a 16-bit chip. "It's application dependent, but going to 16 bits can provide a 20-30 percent code reduction in addition to a speed improvement," says Kevin Kilbane, strategic marketing and systems manager for Freescale Semiconductor's 8/16-Bit Product Division in Austin, TX.
Sometimes called 8-bits on steroids, the larger chips are being designed into appliances and other consumer products where price is key. The average selling price of 8-bit processors is a bit over $1, compared to $4 for 16-bit chips, Massimini says.
Old but healthy: Fueled by higher-end devices, 8-bit processors should continue to see solid growth given its lower-cost advantage.
One reason for low pricing is that as leading-edge chips move to more aggressive line widths, 8-bit chips are run on production equipment that's already amortized. "We're running at 0.35- and 0.25-micron geometries," Di Jasio says. Some low-end 8-bit parts are running on 0.50-micron lines, which helps drive costs low enough for use in portable consumer products and other very low-cost fields, Massimini says.
Massimini estimates that chips with more memory will have a big impact on corporate revenues. They will represent only 1 percent of the market this year, but higher average selling prices mean they will account for 8 percent of 8-bit revenue. Unit shipments will be 4 percent of total 8-bit parts in 2008, but revenues will rise to 20 percent.