CrestaTech ships a software defined radio

IDF 2009: Flexible and international TV, radio and GPS

CRESTATECH IS SHOWING one of the most misunderstood devices in recent memory at IDF, a software defined radio. It went from pre-production silicon at CES to OEM shipments in a very short time.

The idea is simple, normal radio receivers have a fixed frequency that they can get signals on. An FM radio in you car is tuned to see signals from about 88MHz to 108MHz, but it is completely blind to short wave frequencies. If your car has a GPS in it, the information might display on the same screen as the radio station info, but it uses a different radio.

Without getting into RF engineering, lets just simplify things by saying that an antenna is tuned to pull in a specific range of frequencies and not be sensitive to others. It is a black art, but if done right, you end up with a clean signal and minimal extraneous noise. If you do it wrong, the noise will overwhelm your intended signal, if anything can be picked up at all.

To make matters worse, if you have a well tuned antenna for your radio, the frequencies that are used for FM in one country may be the ones used for TV in the next. Cross another border, and that could be a cell phone frequency, and their neighbors might use it for military communications. International standards for RF are a mess of infighting complicated by political whims, and all a consumer electronics company can do is dump money and engineering resources into reinventing that wheel again and again.

For a long time, the idea of a tunable radio receiver has been tossed around, one that could pull in AM, FM, cell phone signals, TV, WiFi, GPS, WiMax and hundreds of others, all without changing the hardware. Even better than a tunable receiver is one that can be tuned entirely in software. Many have attempted it, but none have succeeded.

That is where CrestaTech comes in. The company is the first to succeed in making a commercially viable software defined radio (SDR). It works from about 40MHz to 1.6GHz, and that can be expanded if the need arises. The radio is meant to pull in TV, radio, and GPS signals on one chip. While this has been done before, it almost always has been implemented with multiple radios on the same die, made more complex by the need for multiple physical antennas.

 CrestaTech ships a software defined radio

CrestaTech CrestaTV SDR board

The CrestaTech solution has one radio and one antenna, the software can tune it to the desired frequency, likely with more precision than a more generic wide band antenna. The first benefit is that you pay for one part that is at worst a bit more complex than a single radio, but can replace three traditional ones. There is also the potential for a cleaner signal and less money spent tuning antennas for each market.

This is an incremental gain, the real win is in the international market. If you have ever gone to a foreign country only to have your cell phone not see the network there, the same thing happens with radios and TVs. Most people don’t lug their flat panel TV with them when they fly to Paris, but if you have a US TV tuner in your laptop, it won’t do you much good in the land of runny cheese.

With SDRs, they can sense the frequencies in use in the local area, figure out their location, and tune themselves to pull in the local stations. If you also have GPS capabilities, you can pull your location down and set the local radio and TV channels automagically.

For the user, this means the TV functionality on their laptop just works. For an OEM, you can buy one chip, one software package, design in one antenna, and have one SKU on the shelf for the entire world. The cost savings here should not be underestimated.

CrestaTech is claiming that its first chip can do digital TV, radio and GPS anywhere in the world, while only costing about a third of a conventional DTV chip. Add in that it is universal, and there really are not any down sides.

The first products you will see bearing the CrestaTech chips will be shipping early next year, but they would not say from whom yet. It comes with a complete software package and media player, but also can leverage the codecs you already have installed. The most unique feature of the software is something called Matrix Mode.

 CrestaTech ships a software defined radio

Matrix mode, 16 channels on one screen

The idea is to preview everything that can be seen on the local airwaves, up to 16 channels at a time. The screens update once per second, enough to get a good feel of what is going on, but not enough bring the PC to it’s knees. You can also set a channel to a non-broadcast source, be it YouTube, a DVD, or a directory of files. The software also has Tivo like functionality, if the broadcast allows it. The CrestaTech API is said to be open if you want to extend the functionality, something I can see going down well with the AirSnortset.

The number of channels and frequency of updates is mainly dependent on the CPU power that you can throw at the problem. Encoding, decoding, and some signal processing tasks all take a beefy CPU to run well, so Intel is pretty happy with the whole concept. Better yet, if a killer app comes out that needs to see a different frequency, it is just a software update away.

In the end, it looks like CrestaTech has nailed the Holy Grail of radios, a fully software defined radio. It is cheaper to buy, cheaper to implement, and almost infinitely flexible. If there is problem or a change in regulations, you don’t have to recall anything, just patch. Need more features? Just patch again. That is a lot better solution than screwdrivers and radio modules.S|A

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 CrestaTech ships a software defined radio

Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group.