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Imagination Technologies unimpressed by ARM graphics move

by Scott Bicheno on 16 November 2010, 18:25

Tags: ARM, Imagination Technologies (LON:IMG)

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Catching up with old friends

UK low-power graphics designer Imagination Technologies has spoken exclusively to HEXUS in response to the recent announcement by ARM of its latest graphics design - the Mali T-604.

Imagination is the incumbent, with the majority of the market for SoC (system-on-chip) makers who don't design their own graphics cores - i.e. everyone except Qualcomm and NVIDIA. Its shareholders include Intel and Apple. ARM has an equally strong position in the CPU side of things for SoC-makers, but wants its customers to license its graphics too.

This has only been the case for around four years, since ARM bought Falanx Microsystems. Before that ARM and imagination used to jointly pitch to customers to offer a complete solution. As you might imagine (no pun intended) that changed the nature of the relationship between the two UK companies and now Imagination is disinclined to pull its punches when ARM makes lofty graphics claims.

We spoke to Tony King-Smith, marketing VP at Imagination, and he was decidedly unimpressed by ARM's overall graphics offering. "It's been talked-up for a while, but you still can't buy a device from a reputable manufacturer with Mali in it," he said.

"Over 400 million units and 200 different phones have been shipped with Imagination IP in them," continued King-Smith. "That matters to the content community and we see nothing to worry about from ARM there. But they're going to be able to do some fairly hefty negotiations in order to be able to get partners to buy their GPUs."

One such partner is Samsung, which uses Imagination's PowerVR SGX540 design in its Hummingbird SoC - which runs the Galaxy S and Galaxy Tab - but has switched to Mali for the next generation Orion and is the lead licensee for the Mali T-604. This looks set to be one of the main battlegrounds for the competing claims of Imagination and ARM graphics.

"It will be interesting to test ARM's performance claims between the Samsung Hummingbird and Orion SoCs, and we're very confident series 6 will leave ARM miles behind," said King-Smith. "It's public knowledge that the Apple A4 features our graphics and we've got a far-ranging relationship with them. We're in the Intel chip inside Google TV and we'll be in OMAP 5, despite what ARM says."

Imagination hasn't said much about PowerVR series 6 GPUs yet, but King-Smith seemed very confident in the capabilities of the new micro architecture - codenamed Rogue - that underpins it. SoCs based on the Series 5XT graphics cores will be demonstrated in Japan next month.

Leaving aside performance chest-beating, which is impossible for neutrals to put to the test right now anyway, Imagination considers its biggest advantage over ARM to be its traction and experience in the marketplace. Creating production drivers for so many chips, platforms and devices takes a lot of time and effort. "ARM is years away from reaching that point," concluded King-Smith.