Imagination Technologies – building next generation processors for mobile

June 16, 2014
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ARM may be powering the majority of our smart devices these days, but it’s not the only processor IP developer in town. Over the past few months, Imagination Technologies has been putting together the pieces for its next generation of mobile processors, both CPU and GPU. Recently, the company has been showing off what its technology can do in a complete SoC.

For a change, let’s take a look at what one of the other big names in the world of mobile processors is up to.

I am the Warrior!

We briefly touched on Imagination’s new line-up of Warrior CPU cores when they were initially announce last year. Since then, Imagination has unveiled its high performance 32-bit MIPS P5600 core, which the company labels as P-class, it’s highest performance range. This first generation iteration of its Warrior design can scale all the way from a 1 GHz single core design, up to a 2 GHz six core behemoth. Future iterations of this high end core designs will be making the move over to 64-bit, ensuring that Imagination is well positioned for the 64-bit jump in the mobile market.

MIPS P5600

The P5600 is followed up by the MIPS M51XX family of microprocessor cores, which form up the company’s entry level Warrior M-Class CPU cores designed with power efficiency and small form factors in mind. The Warrior I-class mid-range cores are expected to be unveiled in the not too distant future.

the biggest talking point for these new CPU designs is their energy efficiency and impressive scalability

The Warrior generation can be built from either 32-bit or 64-bit instruction sets, to retain compatibility across the range of implementations, from the low to high end. The design can provide up to twice the performance of the current proAptiv MIPS designs, which should offer up some real competition at the performance end of the market. Although perhaps the biggest talking point for these new CPU designs is their energy efficiency and impressive scalability. Imagination has managed to squash its CPU down by 40 percent, compared with some of its competitors. This is certainly helpful when it comes to small form factor devices, such as wearables, as well as reduced heat and power consumption.

MIPS-vs-competition-area

With the P5600, Imagination allows the designer to configure up to four CPUs running at maximum frequency, whilst leaving two CPUs clocked much lower to handle less demanding tasks and background responsibilities. We’ve seen a similar idea in Nvidia’s Tegra line-up of ARM-based processors, and sounds like it is based on a similar principle to ARM’s big.LITTLE idea. Imagination Technologies’ power management features allow for individual CPU voltage gating and CPU clock gating, only using power where it is really needed.

MIPS Coremark per MHz

Performance wise, Imagination Technologies is boasting best in class performance with its P5600, suggesting that it can take on, and perhaps even exceed, ARM’s Cortex-A15 in core for core performance and energy efficiency. Obviously we’ll have to see some real world performance before making any judgement ourselves, but the extra competition is always welcome. We will have to wait and see what form Imagination Technologies’ new CPU cores finally come in, as, just like ARM, Imagination licenses its IP designs out to other companies to implement.

PowerVR, high performance GPUs

Whilst Imagination might only just be starting to ramp up its push into the mainstream mobile CPU market, the company is already very well established in the graphics department. You will probably recognise the PowerVR series from Apple’s iPhone and iPad chips, or Samsung’s latest Exynos 5 range of SoCs. Currently, the PowerVR GPU range is one of the, if not the, best in the business.

The highest performer in the new range is touted as offering a 50 percent boost to performance over the already powerful Series5 generation

Back at the start of the year, Imagination announced some of the big boys in its new set of PowerVR GPUs, the Series6 Rogue range. The highest performer in the new range is touted as offering a 50 percent boost to performance over the already powerful Series5 generation. The top of the line GX6650 is a six-cluster, 192 ALU core beast, but the Rogue series scales down equally well as Imagination’s other technologies.

GFX Bench Flagships 2014

The Apple A7’s PowerVR G6430 GPU seems to nudge it ahead of the Adreno 330 powered Android flagships.

The Series6 GPU’s can scale all the way down from six clusters, to four, two, one, or just half of a cluster in the G6050 design. The series can be split up into three categories, with the XE chips making up the low end, and the XT chips offering the highest performance. SoC designers have a ton of choice here too, with technology suitable both for high end tablets and smartphones, right down to the most energy efficient wearable technology.

Again, energy efficiency is a core concept with the Series6 range, as well as brute performance. Imagination has included new PVR3C compression technologies to help reduce memory traffic by up to 50 percent, as well as power gating to turn off parts of the GPU that aren’t being used.

GPU Compute, the use of GPU processing for tasks that be done more efficiently on a graphics chip than a CPU, remains intact across the entire set of graphics chip designs. The Series6 range also has full support for essential graphics APIs, such as OpenGL ES 3.0, OpenCL 1.1 EP and DirectX 9.3/10.0. Nothing has been left out.

Building a complete SoC

That’s not all though. In a bid to break ARM and Qualcomm’s grip on the market, Imagination Technology is going one step further, producing a complete product portfolio for mobile chip designers, including its own image sensors, video decode, and connectivity processor designs.

In a bid to break ARM and Qualcomm’s grip on the market, Imagination Technology is going one step further

Although Imagination’s ISP, DSP, and VPU chips all share the PowerVR name tag popularized by the company’s graphics processors, the name actually applies to the department of the company responsible for all manner of 2D and 3D processing tasks. Each of these chip sub-grounds are specifically designed and optimized for their limited duties, balancing performance requirements with the optimum power consumption for their task.

However, there’s one particular area that could give Imagination Technology a huge boost,its Ensigma Radio Processing Units (RPU). Ensigma gives hardware developers the power to choose whatever combination of wireless standards they require, Bluetooth, FM, WiFi, etc. It is pretty comprehensive baseband solution for mobile SoCs, smart TVs, and other connected devices. Qualcomm’s integrated modem certainly helped it rise to the top of the smartphone SoC market, perhaps Imagination can do something similar with Ensigma and wearables.

Imagination SoCs for smartphones and tablets

Imagination’s I and M-class CPUs are also highly suited to the remaining range of tasks that require microprocessors, including 2G/3G/4G modems, GPS, and power management units. As you may have already figured out, the huge range and scalability of these various chips lends itself nicely to the growing markets in wearable technologies and smart embedded devices.

The full range of MIPS P, I, or M, class CPUs, combined with a low end graphics unit seems perfectly suited for the low power and small form factor requirements of a wearable device. Imagination also has its eye firmly on the market for the Internet of Things, smart TV’s, the automotive industry, and pretty much every field that might require a microprocessor.  MIPS CPUs have long been strong component choices for low power integrated circuits, and this history could play a big role in the company’s future aspirations for the wearable and IoT markets.

Imagination Tech SoC for Wearables

There are far too many combinations and intricacies in each design to go through here, but it should be quite clear that Imagination Technologies has an impressive portfolio of products for nearly every aspect of a smart device. As we move towards the 64-bit era for smartphones, and lower power microprocessors IoT and wearables, ARM may soon have a serious competitor in Imagination.

Although we can’t yet say how a final product would compare with the range of ARM processors currently on the market, the prospect of pre-designed and highly compatible parts is surely to tempt one or two SoC manufacturers. Imagination Technologies’ focus on power consumption and energy efficiency might be able to do wonders for our precious battery life, but we’ll have to wait and see which of the big processor OEMs, if any, will make use of these new designs.

Would you like to see your next handset powered by Imagination Technologies?

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