Why Apple chooses Imagination for its GPUs

by: Gary SimsMarch 6, 2014

SoftKitty OpenGL ES demo - PowerVR Rogue (1)

Last month Apple announced that it had extended its multi-year, multi-use license agreement with Imagination Technologies that gives Apple access to Imagination’s range of current and future PowerVR GPUs. Without a doubt Apple is Imagination’s biggest mobile customer, however Apple isn’t its only customer. Other companies that license the PowerVR GPUs include Samsung, MediaTek, AllWinner, Texas Instruments and Intel. This means that not only is the PowerVR GPU found in the iPhone and iPad it is also the GPU used in some variants of the Samsung Galaxy S4, the first models of the Amazon Kindle Fire and a large portion of Chinese phones with MediaTek processors.

How do you measure GPU performance? Cores? Megahertz? GigaFLOPS?

The problem with technology is that it is complicated. It is the job of marketing departments to tell consumers why product A is better than product B. For CPUs the marketers did a great job of convincing the general public that more megahertz is good, more cores are good. Quad-core is better than dual-core, 1.2Ghz is better than 1Ghz, and so on. The problem is that this isn’t actually always true, but that is a different discussion. The question is how do you measure GPU performance? Cores? Megahertz? GigaFLOPS?

What exactly is a “core” in a GPU is a debatable term. Previously a GPU core was the front-end processor which was responsible for scheduling and dispatching work. Or it could be used to describe whole instances of a GPU. Imagination’s SGX544MP3 GPU used three complete instances of the SGX544 engine, duplicating all the GPU resources three times. It was therefore called the MP3 as it had a three core GPU.

However GPUs also contain units that can perform certain mathematical and graphical functions. Most GPUs have lots of these units and GPU vendors started calling them cores even though they can’t act independently and need a front-end processor to schedule work for them. If you use this definition of a core then the latest GPUs from Imagination have 192 cores!

In the mobile space there are no less than seven GPU manufacturers. If you thought picking a video card for a PC was hard then you ain’t seen nothing yet! The current list of GPU designers include ARM with its Mali range, Qualcomm with its Adreno range, NVIDIA, Intel, Broadcom, Vivante and Imagination.

The latest GPUs from Imagination have 192 cores!

If we assume in that in general Qualcomm, NVIDIA and Intel only put their GPUs in their own processors that leaves ARM, Imagination, Broadcom and Vivante who can provide processor makers like Samsung, MediaTek and AllWinner with GPU designs. From that list the leading two are ARM and Imagination. Both Samsung and MediaTek have used ARM’s Mali GPUs and Imagination’s PowerVR GPUs and there doesn’t seem to be a hard rule about which GPU will be used in any particular chip. However as a rough generalization Samsung seems to have favored ARM’s offerings and MediaTek has opted more often for the PowerVR GPU. Apple on the other hand has chosen the PowerVR consistently. Apple’s A4, A5, A5X, A6, A6X, and A7 system-on-a-chip processors all use PowerVR GPUs.

PowerVR GPUs are different than other GPUs in that they use a Tile Based Deferred Renderer (TBDR), rather than an Immediate Mode Renderer (IMR) as found on other GPU architectures. On IMR systems the GPU is given details about every object in a scene and the objects are rendered and put together to form the frame. The problem is that objects which are behind other objects are rendered and then discarded as they can’t be seen from the current viewpoint. This means that any given pixel can be drawn more than once, which obviously is a waste of GPU time and of battery power.

Although other GPUs do have early rejection technologies, none of them are as good as Imagination's Tile Based Deferred Renderer.

With TBDR the frame is sliced up into small tiles and the tile isn’t rendered until the entire scene has been submitted to the GPU. That means that before rendering starts the GPU has an idea about what objects can be seen and which can’t. Using a process called “Hidden Surface Removal” (HSR) the GPU can save time and power by only rendering the bits which can be seen. Although other GPUs do have early rejection technologies, none of them are as good as TBDR.

PowerVR GPU_PowerVR GX6650

Imagination recently announced its latest GPU, the PowerVR GX6650, the successor to the PowerVR G6430 found in the Apple A7 processor. On paper the GX6650 offers up to 115.2 GFLOPS at 300MHz, a significant jump from the 76.8 GLOPS of the G6430. These numbers match those of NVIDIA’s new Tegra K1 Kepler GPU but the new Imagination GPU has a higher Pixels/Clock (ROPs) rate, which could be a key factor when it comes to pushing out higher resolution content, such as 4K video. Whenever Apple does its next big GPU upgrade it is possible that it will move to the GX6650.

As for Android devices, we will have to wait and see if Samsung, MediaTek and AllWinner produce any processors with the PowerVR GX6650. What we do know is that the Allwinner UltraOcta A80, a big.LITTLE octa-core processor, will use the PowerVR G6230 GPU. The G6230 offers 38.4 GFLOPS at 300MHz and 4 ROPs, but that clearly doesn’t match the power of the GX6650. We also know that the recently announced MediaTek MT6595, another octa-core processor with four ARM Cortex-A17 cores plus four Cortex-A7 cores, will use an Imagination Technologies PowerVR Series6 GPU, but we don’t know which one.

What do you think? Would you like to see more Imagination PowerVR GPUs used in processors found in Android devices?

  • RarestName


  • Da Fuq

    I want an Android device with Intel Atom and PowerVR GX6650!

    • MasterMuffin


    • Groud Frank

      Moorefield to be exact? :D 14nm process SoC is super power efficient and coupled with the efficiency of a GPU housed in it that used IRM would make it that much better. A 2800 mAh battery could go further than it’s going today.

    • Winston Purnomo

      64-bit octa-core Cortex-A57 with GX6650!

    • Brahms

      Why Intel Atom ? o_0 *confused*

    • Intel Atom Merrifield and Moorefield use a PowerVR G64x0 GPU. It’s two clusters short of PowerVR GX6650 but it’s still one of our most high-performance GPUs.

    • GetReal

      I don’t, are you kidding?

      ARM Cortex for me please.

  • Balraj

    Common make part 2 of the article…
    I liked it but I feel it needs more .-.

  • mtking

    Now Android Authority also using an article about GPU to “promote” the Apple brand? Apple Authority anyone? P.S You guy forget to highlight that the current “true octa-core” MTK-6592 use the Mali 450-MP4 (MTK-6595 is not available yet in any phone btw)

    • MasterMuffin


      • MasterMuffin please don’t feed the trolls it only encourages them!!!! :-)

        • MasterMuffin

          But I’m confused, I’m not sure if he’s trolling :D

          • I understand, sometimes it can be a little hard to spot the common troll especially when so well disguised. :-

            Let me give you a few hints so you can spot them in the future. :-)

            1) He is anonymous, no registration via G+ etc.

            2) He calls this website “Apple Authority”, a sure way to make us all upset.

            3) He wants me to highlight a processor which doesn’t use a PowerVR GPU when the article is clearly about PowerVR GPUs.

            4) He tries to establish his authority/expertise by pointing out that the MTK6595 is out yet even though I mention it was “recently announced” and talked about the chip in the future tense.

            I hope this helps with your troll spotting!!! :-)

          • MasterMuffin

            Thanks :D

          • AndroidBoss

            Usually when people troll around here I troll back but in a good way :P.

          • Brahm

            Lol, point 1 & 2 are enough to spot troll with 97.35% accuracy :D

            Oh, I forgot I also a guest commenter :)
            I guess that classifies me as 43% troll :D

  • Cl3v3rNaMe

    if only more oem’s used mali & powervr…

  • Amine Elouakil

    Hmm, it’s not as simple as that, TBDR and IMR each has it own advantages and drawbacks, and the artical only mentions one side of the coin, and it makes it sound like a Imagination PR release.

    It’s great that AA is starting to release more technical articals, it’s a great start, but I believe you guys should make Anandtech a benchmark in this area and try to get inspired by their way of doing things in this category

    • Amine, thanks for your comments and I am glad you liked the article. In terms of its technical content it is clear that sites like Anandtech are well respected for their technical expertise and I agree that if we wanted to pick a good example of what a technical site should deliver then Anandtech is a good choice.

      Having said that, my aim for this article was to open the ideas behind GPU architecture (specifically Imaginations GPUs) to a wider audience and concentrate less on numbers and acronyms.

      However, I find your comments very encouraging and maybe in future we could up the technical stuff even a bit more.

      • Amine Elouakil

        Great and thanks for the reply keep it up

  • Scott Ricketts

    These are also the people who brought us the graphics in the Sega Dreamcast. I remember seeing Soul Calibre on the Dreamcast and wondering why anyone would buy a PS2. Ah, memories.

    • Cole Raney

      Yeah, the PS2 was the weakest system of its gen, but damn it was a good system.

  • Cole Raney

    Sony also uses GPUs from Imagination technologies for the PlayStation Vita.

    • renz

      PS vita is pretty much like smartphone processor wise. Quad ARM A9 with Power VR gpu. honestly i was thinking if porting vita titles (like Killzone Mercenary) to android was possible because of that. but then again developer that making games for handheld console like PS Vita might not interested with android because they have to compete with freemium title while they prefer to sell their games for $20-$40 per copy

  • Anthonydotcom

    Author- I’m just curious but is this native advertising? Don’t get me wrong, it’s well written but it reads like an advertisement for Imagination.

    But to answer the question, I really only want the GPU that gives my device the best performance. Charts and numbers are meaningless.

    • Of course this isn’t advertising! Would it help if I said some bad things about PowerVR GPUs?

      • Anthonydotcom

        I’m really sorry for asking. I swear I didn’t mean it as an insult. I was just curious as I know native advertising exists and was hoping this wasn’t an example. Like I said, it really was well written. Maybe it was the title that threw me off. ;)

    • Darcy, Josh and I had a long discussion about mobile devices, GPUs (in general) and PowerVR at MWC. This article nicely sums up our deep dive on TBDR and the recent announcements that we’ve made but it is by no means paid advertising.

  • Stefan

    Of course we want more GPUs from Imagination, competition is always a good thing

  • Andrew T Roach

    My experience with PowerVR GPUs in the iPhone 5 and iPad mini with retina have been very positive. Especially the G6430 in the iPad. Moderately demanding games barely heat the chassis at all and can get almost 10 hours of play out of it.

    • renz

      10 hours straight of gaming session?

  • Brahm

    So that means I can’t have both Snadpragon and PowerVR in the same package ?

    I like PowerVR but I prefer Qualcomm Snapdragon for the processor. I guess I’ll have to stick with Adreno for the rest of my android phone :/

  • Markus Pabst

    I would agree to most of the article. But i expected to read about additional reasons why to choose the Imagination GPUs like watts per GFLOP, features, price…

    • Hi Markus,

      The original interview was slightly longer and we covered some of the topics you mention above.

      Perhaps we can talk about them in a future interview if more people visiting Android Authority are interested.