EN-Genius Network's 2011 Product Of The Year Winners
and, in honor of our 11th year of publication, we are delighted to identify what we feel is the single
Best Product of our Decade
Ten years ago, halfway through our inaugural year of publishing, we began awarding our Product of the Year awards to exceptionally innovative and market-forward products across the range of the applications and technologies we cover: well over one hundred such awards have been made. It's not an essay contest or a submit-your-entry scenario. The winners have always emerged organically from our editors' expertise and their take on the product's merits and likelihood of market success.
So, it seemed only fitting this year to look back across that impressive output of engineering talent to identify the single most game-changing product or product line we had encountered in what we at EN-Genius think of as "our" decade.
It wasn't an easy choice. But, as Paul McGoldrick pondered, a clear standout ultimately emerged.
Best Product of our Decade
Linear Technology µModules
The introduction of the µModules by Linear was a landmark change in product offerings from a semiconductor company. Licensing MOSFET technology from an outside source (Silicon Semiconductor Corp
, formed in 2000 as Silicon Wireless Corp, as a incubation spin-off from North Carolina State University by IGBT guru B Jayant Baliga and funded with $10 million from Fairchild) and improving it for a range of self-contained dc-dc regulators was something that other vendors – who already had MOSFET and passive business lines – should have seen first as a business model.
EN-Genius (as analogZONE) recognized the first part, the 10 A LTM4600, with a review
in October of 2005 and, later on, a Product of the Year Award for 2005. There were further awards, such as a Product of the Year Award
in 2010 for the LTM4611, and the µModule range of regulators now extends
to about fifty parts in about five different LGA and BGA packages of various heights.
The concept of the µModules allows the product designer to come to the decisions about power management quite late on in the development cycle with the restriction on package board area – already allocated – simplifying the final product choice. That same restriction does mean that sometimes the most efficient use of board space is not achieved but it is a small price to pay for the flexibility.
Linear has also extended
the concept to a family of seventeen ‘System in a Package’ (SiP) signal chain receiver modules the first of which, the LTM9001, we reviewed here
. The SiPs, which feature 12-/14-/16-bit solutions, not only simplify circuit design for the less than sure RF engineer out there but they also bypass export regulation control of some individual ADCs.
All-in-all the µModule concept has been a spectacularly successful commercial and technological story for Linear. We are delighted to congratulate them on their achievement and to recognize them as the Product of Our Decade.
On, now, to the 2011 Products of the Year. As always, awards are listed alphabetically by the recipient company's name.
Best Improvement in Handheld Digital Multimeters
Handheld multimeters are perhaps the commodity items of the electronics test world, with prices ranging from less than $30, and it certainly requires some different features to get a particular model into a buyer’s focus. In these times of purchasing austerity, therefore, Agilent has had to come up with some new twists to make the comparatively expensive U1230 Series more attractive.
The primary feature is that an LED flashlight has been added to the rear of the unit so that your working area can be illuminated. Sounds a little tacky, to be sure, but it is probably not at all a bad idea: many is the time you would wish for a couple of extra hands in some environments and the flashlight at least eliminates the need for one of those hands. Agilent has also added a flashing backlight as an additional visual alert and a non-contact voltage detection they are calling Vsense, allowing measurements in dangerous environments without live wire contacts.
The Series has a nice handgrip shape to the body and the main function selection knob has a serrated edge that slightly overlaps the body to make for a better non-slip grip.
The units are powered from 4 AAA batteries with a 500 hour typical life with both the LED flashlight and backlight disabled. Shipped with the DMMs are a quick-start guide, a certificate of calibration, batteries, and 4mm tip test probes; other test leads and an IR-to-USB cable are also available.
Agilent is offering a lot more from these extremely good DMMs and will get a great deal of business because of it. Agilent product is still not ‘off-the-shelf’ accessible to most buyers, however, and the point has been reached that if Agilent wants to make its lower priced products readily available it needs to get itself into the likes of the Digikey catalog so that it can compete with other companies directly: not a place anyone at Agilent ever expected to be a decade ago.
Best Omnipolar Hall Effect Switch
The AH1891 is an omnipolar Hall Effect switch with dual, complementary, outputs. The outputs are switched with either a North or South pole of sufficient strength. When the magnetic flux exceeds the operating point output one switches to an active low on-state and output two switches to an active high on-state, both with internal pull-down/pull-up capability. The typical operate point of each channel is ±40 gauss (each ±50%) and the release points are ±25 gauss giving a typical hysteresis of 15 gauss. The maximum magnetic flux density is unlimited.
The supply range for the AH1891 is from 1.8 V to 3.3 V with a chip-enable supply current of a typical 2 mA. Disable current is a typical 5 µA. With an active duty cycle of 0.1% (50 µs every 50 ms) the average supply current is a typical 7 µA.
Each channel consists of a Hall plate with offset cancellation followed by a comparator and a latch switching the output stage.
The story with the AH1891 is size. Diodes have managed to put the dual switch system into a four-bump CSP of just 0.8mm x 0.8mm and the company says that it offers good immunity to RF noise. The part will find numerous applications in portable devices especially for the open-close functionality needed for power.
Best High-Speed Differential ADC Driver
The ISL55210 is a fully-differential voltage-feedback amplifier that has an input noise voltage performance of 0.85 nV/rtHz (input current of 5 pA/rtHz), making it suitable for properly driving 14-bit ADCs. With a gain-bandwidth product of 4.0 GHz (at a gain of 18 dB into a 200 Ω load), a 0.1 dB gain flatness of 200 MHz, and a slew rate of 5600 V/µs it is also very suitable for driving high clock rate converters.
The amplifier offers an output common-mode control loop that can, of course, be tied to any following ADC.
The ISL55210 is an obvious choice for differential drive of a high resolution ADC up to IF. Because the majority of such applications would use a single-ended source coupled to the part through a balun it would behoove Intersil to add a wideband transformer as a variant to the device. It should be very successful if Intersil can convince designers that it really is serious about the high-performance sector and can actually deliver the numbers. A companion part will be the ISL55211 which will have on-chip feedback to offer a selection of three possible fixed gains.
Best Precision Bandgap
It is always nice to see an acquired technology or product line continue to develop under new ownership. This is the case with the Xicor acquisition some years back by Intersil with their floating-gate array technology designed to achieve solidly better accuracies than those previously available with references.
What has seemingly been lacking in this technology has been the ability to achieve noise figures that rival the best and that specification has now been landed with the ISL21090 2.5 V reference.
The ISL21090 offers an output noise voltage of 1.9 µV peak-peak (over 0.1 Hz to 10 Hz with broadband noise voltage at 1.6 µV rms) which is dramatically better than available elsewhere. Added to this the company has achieved a design that allows for a high input voltage range from 4.7 V to 36 V. The initial accuracy is ±0.02% (±0.5 mV for a 2.5 V reference) which is better than the nearest competitor.
There has to be a negative with all this performance, right? Yes, pricing is still high – better than it has been with Xicor-derived parts – but if you need one or more of the numbers offered here then the ISL21090 has to be a serious look-see item. The 2.5 V reference is the first on offer in the family and Intersil plan for other voltage. They will make a huge impression in the voltage reference market especially in instrumentation and process control. The 2.5 V part is obviously ideal for a lot of ADC applications.
Best Integer-N Synthesizer
The LTC6946 is an ultra-low phase noise integer-N frequency synthesizer being offered in three band versions. -1 offers an internal VCO that can be operated from 2.240 GHz to 3.740 GHz, the -2 from 3.080 GHz to 4.910 GHz and the -3 from 3.840 GHz to 5.790 GHz. With internal dividers of 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 any frequency between 373 MHz and 5.790 GHz can be produced.
The architecture of the LTC6946 consists of a PLL with temperature-compensated, self-calibrating, VCO and N divider (32 to 65535) feeding into a phase/frequency detector and external loop filter. The detector is also fed with an external reference between 1 MHz and 250 MHz which can be single-ended or differential and can be either a sine wave or a logic signal. A buffered reference output is also available. The buffered reference is divided by an R divider of 1 to 1023 so that both reference and VCO-derived signals are below 100 MHz at the detector. The output of the VCO is also taken to the output divider for the main RF output signal which always has a 50% duty cycle. The output can be ‘muted.’
Operational bandwidths of LTE systems are increasing as competing carriers share the same infrastructure with multiple groups of signals, often with different modulation standards, and the phase noise floor becomes increasingly more significant to the overall performance. (Other unwanted effects are also going to be a problem in modulators and demodulators as bandwidth increases.) The LTC6946 is Linear’s answer to achieving phase noise floors which overcome the premium lost – a theoretical 3 dB for every doubling of bandwidth – with the expansion of bandwidth.
The LTC6946 is a 3.3 V part with supply current depending on operation but with a maximum of about 122 mA.
A Windows-based Wizard is available for download from Linear which suggests recommended parts for the frequency plan you are using, and help to design a loop filter optimized for minimum noise. The Wizard will also read and write from/to all the device registers over the SPI and to troubleshoot common set-up problems and programming errors. Also featured are simulations for loop frequency response and phase margin, as well as source noise and output noise characteristics.
There is also available the LTC6945 (released with little fanfare just before Christmas 2011). This has the same architecture as the LTC6946 but without the internal VCO. An external VCO with frequencies above 9 GHz will be usable with the LTC6945. That part is probably going to be rather more difficult for the average designer to use but the extended frequency range opens up a lot of non-commercial applications in military communications and test and measurement.
The availability of the new frequency synthesizer fills another one of the gaps in Linear’s RF offerings for mobile telephony and data. What remains is the most important arena of high-speed DACs. The parts are a welcome addition to Linear’s RF arsenal and will prove to be equally attractive to designers who do not have to cope with large bandwidth issues straight away.
Best Spectral Characteristic Ambient Light Sensor
The MAX44007 and MAX44009 are ambient light sensors with integrated photodiodes, ADCs, and I2C interface on-chip. The die for each part is in an optically-transparent package and an integrated photodiode (with a package-level optical filter to block ultraviolet and infrared light) converts the light to a current that is converted into a digital stream, then stored in a register that is read by the interface.
The optical spectral sensitivity is close to that of the human eye. A second photodiode array that is sensitive to the infrared spectrum is used to match out the effects of fluorescent and incandescent light sources, with a 10% light source matching.
An on-chip interrupt function that is programmable eliminates the need for continuous polling – that contributes to a massively reduced quiescent current, which at 90 lux is typically 650 nA over the supply voltage range of 1.7 V to 3.6 V.
Each photodiode array has its own 16-bit ADC which have a 6-bit control range (derived in the following signal processing of the digital signals) to maximize the operating range for the actual incident light. To allow the use of two sensors on the same bus in an application the MAX44007 has an address pin allowing the options of 1011 010x and 1011 011x, while the MAX44009 offers 1001 010x and 1001 011x.
The extremely good spectral characteristic and corrections for ambient non-eye sensitive light sources, together with the remarkably low current consumption and the ability to use the parts on the same 1.8 V rail and the I2C interface are major benefits. The standardized optical path offered by the integration of the photodiodes also increases the ability to reproduce results on a production scale. Both these parts will see massive implementation in notebooks and displays, as well as smart phones and security systems. Pricing has been made extremely attractive.
Best Crossover Solution for Domestic LED Lighting
Before all our houses are wired for dc lighting the “tweenie” stage of conversion from incandescent lighting to LEDs – avoiding the nasty government-mandated environmento-guilty CFLs – is to have some form of conversion products for existing sockets. Most of those are, hopefully, going to come from products that directly take 85 Vac – 250 Vac inputs and provide direct driving to the LEDs. This Maxim part takes another but equally welcome approach in offering a conversion path for 12 Vac sourced halogen fixtures, normally in the very familiar MR16 spot format, and for other low-voltage lamps.
The challenge with such an LED driver is allowing the use of not just the 12 Vac input but also allowing for existing dimming equipment to be used: either trailing-edge dimming with electronic transformers or leading-edge dimmers with magnetic transformers. Maxim does this with patent-pending constant-frequency average current shaping to compensate – like a gamma corrector – for the inherently non-linear characteristics of the LED.
The Maxim solution also allows for a design where the input capacitance can be ceramic, eliminating the most-likely-to-fail electrolytic capacitor of other designs. This latter becomes crucially important when you see manufactured fittings from Asia continually built using under-voltage-rated electrolytics to save costs with 80 V devices used in 110 Vac products and 6.3 V devices used in 12 Vac products.
The ten or so components required for operation of the MAX16840 should allow for the system incorporation in the body of an MR16 fitting quite handily. The part can deliver up to 20 W. This will be a very high volume product.
Best RGB LED Driver for Projectors
This is the last award to National in its own name… There is nothing new in a switching-mode constant current regulator as an LED driver, but where National has put its mark here is in sequencing between three channels to power green, blue and red LEDs successively. We would love to know more about how this sequence switching is done.
We are told that the part includes different pass elements for the three channel currents, with n-channel MOSFETs, and that the main p-channel and n-channel MOSFETs are also on-chip. Up to 2 A of LED current can be supplied in pulse format (with the maximum current on each channel set with an external fixed resistor from 0.5 A to 2.0 A) and the currents can be controlled on the I2C interface on an individual basis (with 1024 levels) optimizing for different LED forward voltages.
The LM3435 includes thermal shutdown and peak current limit protection and ceramics can be used for the required capacitors with no loop correction required.
The LM3435 should be ideally placed for use in the limited real estate offered by pocket LED projectors. Pricing is right.
Best Frequency-Agile Capacitance
Getting a digitally-tuned capacitor for RF isn’t limited to just getting the right steps of capacitance themselves. To be of use in real world conditions the capacitor must be capable of handling a decent amount of power so that is can be inserted as close to the element being tuned (probably the antenna, in many cases) as possible. Peregrine have done that with the PE64904 and PE64905 offering performance from 100 MHz to 3 GHz.
The difference between the two parts is the control interface. The PE64904 uses a 3-wire SPI compatible serial interface while the PE64905 uses a 2-wire I2C serial interface.
Each device contains a system of five capacitors (5 bit) that can be switched into circuit in either a series or shunt configuration. In series there is a 6.6 to 1 tuning ratio offered with the 32 steps of capacitance of about 126 fF each changing the absolute value from about 0.7 pF to 4.6 pF (at 100 MHz). In the shunt configuration the tuning ratio is about 4.6 to 1 with 32 steps of about 131 fF with an absolute value range from about 1.12 pF to 5.18 pF (also at 100 MHz). Equivalent series resistance is lower than 1.5 Ω. The Q factor is better than 25 across the board while harmonics are lower than -36 dBm for both second and third across the operating spectrum.
At the same time the devices can handle power inputs up to 38 dBm (about 7 W into 50 Ω) with 30 Vpeak.
Like all of Peregrine’s silicon-on-sapphire UltraCMOS products the parts are immune to latch-up. These parts will find ready acceptance in antenna tuning in portable RF products as well as tuning elements in filter networks and diversity/curtain phase shifters.
Best LCD Panel LED Backlight Driver
The SC5010 is an 8-channel boost LED driver for LCD backlighting. It features an input voltage range from 4.5 V to 27 V with an output range up to 50 V. Both analog and PWM dimming are provided with phase shifting and fading. It also features potential video field synchronization with a sync input range from 30 Hz to 100 kHz, and a two-wire I2C interface.
The 8 strings of the output channels can support from 10 mA up to 30 mA per string and the typical application would use between three and ten LEDs per string. Analog dimming is over 5 bits while PWM dimming can be set to a resolution of either 9 bits or 10 bits. The phase shifting from string-to-string reduces transients and the capacitance values needed on both input and output lines.
The block diagram shows that this part is extremely complex and the most important story about the SC5010 is its size. Being able to place the LED driver closer to the display that is being backlit does not reduce the overall number of connections that need to be made but it vastly simplifies EMI issues that might otherwise arise with long output runs to the LEDs. The high switching frequencies possible allow the use of small inductors as well. The SC5010 will find multiple applications in LCD monitors in automotive entertainment and instrument cluster displays, as well as in mobile and tablet PCs.
Best High-Current Buck Regulators
Summit has taken a big jump with the SMB220/221 digitally-controlled dc-dc regulators. Whereas the high current product previously, the SMB211, relied on external power MOSFETs to deliver upwards of 20 A the new products bring the MOSFETs in to the ICs. To do this in a QFN-28 brings the company a totally different perspective on the market and what it might be able to do.
Summit retains all its unique programmability and features in the new products, including 1% output voltage accuracy in steps of 10 mV from 0.5 V (lowest output voltage) to 2.5 V, or 20 mV steps from 1.0 V to 5.0 V. Communications are on a 2-wire serial bus that can be I2C or SMBus and a power good indication is provided.
The input rail voltage to the products can be from 4.5 V to 16 V and the output can be taken as high as the input voltage with a ±1.5% accuracy over load and temperature.
Summit can take a huge slice of the enormous 10 A to 20 A market for power by dedicating themselves to the task. Now they have achieved these kind of load capabilities they must also look at ways that they can simplify their product offerings with some ‘standard’ settings to reduce the anxiety of some designers to engage in any programmable solution. The prices chosen are extremely attractive.
Best Fundamental Change in Electronic Test
The spectrum analyzer came about in a strange way. The first needs to examine spectrum in the frequency domain came about in the late 1930s and into WW-II as a means to see who was on the air in certain relatively narrow frequency bands. Espionage agents would change frequency on an irregular but predetermined basis, and there was little chance of catching their short transmission bursts with conventional radio tuning. These early devices, known as panoramic adaptors, were produced on both sides of the Atlantic with the majority being for connection to the detectors on receivers like those from Hallicrafters.
What is less known is that there was a version of the adaptor from Eddystone which never went into production which also had a time domain display and, intriguingly, a frequency vs time display which was intended to be used as a distortion measurement system. Eddystone disappeared into the Marconi Wireless Telegraph morass and both eventually went into history.
The Tektronix MDO4000 series is a modern version of that early work but I doubt anybody who worked on it at the company had any clue as to a past history of such an attempt to mix domains on a single display.
And Tek has done it in a superb fashion. This is, truly, a major jump in electronic display instrumentation technology and we hope that it will be recognized as such.
This is not a half-hearted effort to produce a compromise frequency/time instrument. It is a fully-featured double use piece of kit with twenty-six patents pending that will find an affectionate place on many a lab bench. In these days of tight budget crunching for capital equipment the MDO400 series will be a wonderful reason for updating your oscilloscope with one that has all of the things that you wished for and can get today together with an exemplary spectrum analyzer that can look at exactly the same signals and their timing derivatives from an entirely different perspective. One can see long weekends being spent at the bench while new owners learn to get the very best out of this wonderfully productive gear. The world of VCO/PLL design and problem solving as well as the solution of EMI issues will never be the same again.
Best Common-Mode Difference Amplifier
The INA149 is TI’s reaction to competition. The world of unity gain high common-mode voltage amplifiers was led by the company’s INA117, and then Analog Devices came along with the AD629. TI have now responded with the INA149 both in specifications and pricing.
The big improvement in the specifications is in the CMRR – which is what these difference amplifiers are all about. Across the range the TI product is at least 15 dB better offering a minimum of 90 dB across the temperature range of -40ºC to 125ºC, with a typical 100 dB out to 1 kHz.
These amplifiers are for use in applications where galvanic isolation is not needed and they save the expense of isolation amplifiers (and their power supplies) and their more limited performance. With the INA149 TI have taken back the lead in the high common-mode voltage difference amplifier battle and will maintain it for quite some time. They are also pricing the new part about twenty cents lower than the now poorer performing competition. Both are recipes for high volume success.
Best Low Drift/Low Noise Op Amp
TI has not been lethargic about producing op amps with low drift offset voltages (I cannot bring myself to use the inaccurate ‘zero-drift’ nomenclature the company employs). The OPA2188 in its double op amp form, together with the OPA188 single and OPA4188 quad, surprises twice with an operating voltage that has increased to 36 V while the drift is 0.03 µV/ºC, typical, (on a 25 µV maximum input offset voltage) and the input noise voltage density is a typical 0.88 nV/rtHz (at 1 kHz).
TI achieves the low drift with its proprietary auto-zeroing techniques offering considerably better input offset voltages than typical precision laser-trimmed architecture, often by a factor of five times at room temperature; lower noise is also a benefit of the TI techniques. The family also offers RF filtered inputs.
This family of op amps offers precision performance and the added EMI rejection on the inputs makes them very suitable for densely populated mixed-signal circuit boards. The parts will find applications in test equipment, electronic scales, medical instrumentation, active filters, and precision sensor chains. The ability to use higher voltage rails means that input signals will rarely have to be attenuated and a useful application may indeed be as an active attenuator for ADC driving. This technology puts TI way ahead of the pack in low-drift op amps and the pricing has been set to make the parts even more attractive.
Best Second-Source Products
Touchstone continues to challenge Maxim with parts that can replace high-volume product that can be difficult to source as the original. Maxim is probably the only company in Silicon Valley that customers will continually describe in less than glowing terms about their ability to deliver products. As if to grind home the point both the parts that Touchstone is second-sourcing here, the MAX9938 and MAX9634, have the warning on their web pricing pages of, “Please note: Maxim is prioritizing manufacturer business ahead of non-franchised distribution. We are unable to dedicate any resources to support non-franchised distribution, and available inventory is reserved for manufacturer demand at this time. We apologize for the inconvenience.” That is about as clear a warning as you can make that some business, some customers, are not welcome. There may be extraordinary reasons why Maxim is in this position but that is not going to impress someone looking to design in their parts, or their purchasing agents.
Touchstone is financially positioned to feed on this latent demand and is doing so with the TSM9938F and TSM9634F current-sense amplifiers. The former is the version of the MAX9938F with a 500 µV input offset voltage and the latter offers a tighter 250 µV input offset as a replacement MAX9634F. Both match Maxim’s input common-mode range of 1.6 V to 28 V and offer quiescents of less than 1 µA.
Touchstone is not currently offering these parts in the 4–bump UCSP that is available from Maxim (if you are one of those customers that can get delivery) but they don’t need to take on those massively large quantity orders at this stage in their existence. Indeed, maybe Maxim will be grateful for Touchstone taking some of the lower volume pressure off their backs?
Best Rectifier Solution for Solar Cell Protection
A dozen 45 V Trench MOS barrier Schottky (TMBS) rectifier diodes in dual configurations with current ratings of 10 A, 20 A, 30 A, and 60 A. All four ratings are available in the three classic power packages of TO-263AB, TO-220AB, and ITO-220AB which all offer maximum operating junction temperatures of 150ºC. The cathodes of the diodes are the common connection to the central pin. The parts are specifically designed as protection diodes for photovoltaic solar cell bypass and they offer low forward voltage drops and very low power losses for high efficiency operation.
These are going to be truly huge volume parts and, at the moment, will virtually corner the bypass protection market for PV solar cell operation. The pricing examples examined show that they will also be very profitable devices for Vishay – which they thoroughly deserve.
Best Cat IV Optocouplers
Cat IV is the highest IEC protection level for connection to the electrical grid and these two devices, with variants, are the first to offer Cat IV protection in surface-mount configurations. They follow on from through-hole devices already released by Vishay.
The thickness of the insulation internal to the devices (between GaAs infrared emitting diode – input – and the phototransistor – output) is greater than 3mm while the external creepage distance is 9.5mm in the CNY64ST (10.16mm lead centers) and 14mm in the CNY65ST (15.24mm lead centers). The allowable working voltage is up to 600 V with a repetitive peak recurring voltage of 1450 V.
The application range for these optocouplers is huge and the SMD packaging enables very much larger volume production runs in a more economical manner. Expect to see them specified in solar and other ‘green’ power sourcing diagnostics as well as in high-voltage motor protection systems and switch-mode power supplies.
Warmest congratulations to all our 2011 Product of the Year recipients, and our best wishes to readers and manufacturers alike for a prosperous and happy 2012!