Apexone: Here comes muPad from Shanghai

June 13, 2012

junko.yoshida-June 13, 2012

SHANGHAI - On its surface, Apexone Microelectronics Inc., consisting of 40 people in Shanghai, is your typical one-trick Chinese fabless chip company.  The company designs an optical sensor chip that goes inside millions of mice used for PCs. Ho hum.

However, on that basis, Apexone, founded in 2002, is already the second largest optical sensor SoC provider for PC mice, after Taiwan-based PixArt Imaging. With 1,000 customers, Apexone works directly or indirectly with all the PC OEMs and ODMs in the world, claimed James Gao, founder, president and CEO.

Spending a few hours with Gao in his office here, though, and you realize that Gao's ambition extends far beyond mere success as a China fabless. Armed with its optical navigation device technology and a host of patents, Gao hopes to spin his company's core human interface technology into three application platforms: PCs, smartphones and smart TVs.

Enter the demo of Apexone-developed μPad (pronounced Mu Pad) prototype. Scheduled for launch in the next three months, the μPad could be one of those devices that OEMs and consumers just plain want -- with little prodding and no lengthy explanations.

μPad is an ultra-portable computing device -- the size of a USB thumb drive -- that one can carry from school to home, from office to office to hotel room, without requiring the user to lug a big notebook computer.

All the features enabled in a typical iPad -- although this one is Android 4.0-based -- are crammed into this USB stick. It includes operating system, optical navigation user interface, wireless (3G/4G), WiFi, Webcam connectivity and HD DVD decoding capabilities.

Simply by plugging the μPad device into a USB port in the back of a flat panel TV, a dumb TV suddenly gets "smart," allowing kids, for example, to play "Angry Bird" on a big screen, watch high-definition movies downloaded from the Internet or even online through broadband, surf the Web or check e-mail.

Without having to turn one's large-screen into a large touch-screen panel, the optical navigation also facilitates large-screen e-mail and files with a virtual (although somewhat cumbersome) keyboard that pops up on-screen.

Gao presented an almost flawless demo in his office, but wouldn't let EE Times photograph his prototype. Nor would he reveal an estimate of the bill of materials. He's saving his big splash for a later date.

If μPad does emerge as a hit product, one thing is clear. This is a quintessentially Chinese story. Apexone was in the right place - Shanghai - to locally source pretty much every component that goes inside the μPad, including an ARM-based application processor. Gao can locally manufacture the hardware systems, quickly, and at a moment when every system OEM/ODM's attention is directed at China.

Designing a product like μPad, however, is no small feat. The biggest challenge has been managing heat dissipation, according to Gao. All the multimedia features of a smartphones and more are packed in this tiny device. On the μPad, HD video decoding, for example, is carried out not by an apps processor but by separate hardwired chip in order to enhance video quality transferred to a large screen TV, said Gao. But as the movie rolls along, a μPad can get hot, he added.

Another challenge is that the device is based on Android. "Android is not known as the most stable platform," said Gao. Perhaps even harder is making sure μPad works with every TV set (with USB slot) using different BIOS, operating systems, screen sizes and resolution, designed by different brands. Of course, this isn't uncharted territory for Apexone.

James Gao, Apexone founder, president and CEO, in his office in Shanghai

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