Mobile integratable IP cores look to one up Tegra K1's Geforce-product

What does Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) iPhone 5S A7 SoC and Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd.'s (KRX:005930) Galaxy S4 Exynos have in common?  Well, for starters they both have chips made in Samsung fabs.  But another commonality (well, in the case of the International edition of the GS4) is that both have dies that include PowerVR GPUs by Imagination Technologies Group Plc (LON:IMG).

This week at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2014) in Las Vegas, Nevada, Imagination Tech. unveiled not one, but two new series of GPUs.  Competition has grown increasingly tight for the IP (intellectual property) core designer, based out of Hertfordshire and Kings Langley, UK.  Many of these rivals are old; others are recent allies turned nemesis.

Before we dive into the new family of releases codenamed "Rogue" -- the PowerVR SGX 6XE Series (coming), PowerVR Series6 (currently on the market), and PowerVR Series6 XT (coming), let's take a peek back at Imagination Tech's history.

I. The Beginning

The late 1980s and early 1990s were the roaring days of a new kind of a chip, the graphics processing unit.  Passions ran high.  Companies rose and fell.  But a few remained as the 2000s began to roll by.

This fascinating time in the market is well-summarized by TechSpot's Graham Singer in his piece from early this year "The History of the Modern Graphics Processor".  "From Voodoo to GeForce: The Awesome History of 3D Graphics", an absolute masterpiece on the topic by Paul Lilly, also offers yet more good insight.
Few graphics companies survived the turbulent 90s. [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

But while these histories may fill some tech geeks with nostalgia, they largely remain irrelevant.

Some companies like Silicon Integrated Systems (SiS) Corp. (TPE:2363) and Dorval, Canada based Matrox quietly rode off into the sunset. 

Others were gobbled up by larger firms -- including Number Nine Visual Technology Corp. (sold to S3 Graphics in 1999), S3 Graphics (acquired by HTC Corp. (TPE:2498) in 2011, used for legal defense), 3dfx Interactive (acquired by NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA) in Oct. 2002, merged into Geforce tech pool), Rendition (acquired by Micron Technology, Inc. (MU) in 1998 but was killed by delays), 3D Labs (original a Creative Technology Ltd. (SGX:C76) subsidiary, rebranded as ZiiLabs and then purchased by Intel Corp. (INTC) in 2000), Trident Microsystems (bought by XGI Technologies in 2003, which was bought by SiS in 2006), and ATI technologies (acquired by Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) in mid-2006).

Of the many companies arguably only the legacies of 3dfx (via NVIDIA), Trident (via Intel), and ATI (via AMD) continue live on in the graphics industry.  But actually, there's one more -- Imagination Technologies.  The story of Imagination Technologies' evolution from 90s GPU maker to top mobile core designer is perhaps the most unique outcome among the graphics firms of the 90s.

II. First There was Video Logic

Imagination Tech. was founded as VideoLogic in 1985.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s it designed graphics processing chips for traditional PCs competing with the likes of U.S.-based NVIDIA and Canada's ATI Technologies.  Decent early showings attracted the interest of Japan's Renesas Electronics Corp. (TYO:6723).

apocalypse 5D
Before mobile GPUs Imagination Tech was producing gems like "Apocalypse 5D" as VideoLogic. [Image Source: Tweak3D]

PowerVR's novel innovation was its pioneering of Z-buffer testing, which cut down on redundant pixel draws to a single screen site, hence reducing memory bandwidth.

At the turn of the century Imagination Tech. was profitable, but its leaders were hungry for more challenges.  In particular Sir Hossein Yassaie, who joined Imagination Tech. in 1992 and became CEO in 1998, felt the console market (who NEC primarily sold chips to) was too volatile.  In 1999, when VideoLogic was renamed Imagination Technologies he commented:

We are positioning the company to take full advantage of the digital and Internet era which provides us with a host of emerging opportunities for our technology.

The press release also states:

The new name reflects the changed emphasis of the Group on developing and licensing innovative technologies for the human/computer interface. The Group now derives the majority of its revenues through the licensing of its patented technologies across a range of platforms including arcade systems, videogame consoles, PCs and set-top-boxes. Future target platforms will include mobile computers and home network devices.

Indeed, mobile would prove a critical target as desktop and console GPU opportunities evaporated.  At the time Imagination Tech.'s biggest contract to date was the Sega Dreamcast GPU.  But by 2000 it was already proving a tremendous disappointment, beginning to flop.

The Sega Dreamcast was powered by PowerVR.

Still, Imagination Tech. also had a thriving GPU project with STMicroelectronics N.V. (EPA:STM) (Sir Yassaie's former employer pre-1992).  The pair produced the Kyro II desktop GPU, which was supported by cardmaker Hercules.  Early releases like the 3D Prophet 4500 impressed.  AnandTech wrote that year, "The performance of the Kyro II based 3D Prophet 4500 is nothing short of stunning given its price: a mere $149.99."

Kyro II
The 3D Prophet 4500 w/ Kyro II shows off at CeBit 2001
[Image Source: Overclockers Club Online]

But much like the Dreamcast had a fatal flaw (Sega), the Kyro II's allure soon faded as transform and lighting (T&L) optimization took hold, favoring NVIDIA and ATI's rival solutions (the highly efficient Kyro II lacked T&L a key flaw).  Kyro 3 may be remembered as potentially the best GPU to never see the light of day; it included T&L and would likely have blew away ATI and NVIDIA's wares, had it launched (given the base rendering performance of the last generation).  But alas, STMicro's finances were in dire straits and it killed the promising chip.

Having not one, but two major products flop would have meant death to most companies.  But Imagination Technologies' odd strategy of licensing and mobile 3D now appeared brilliant as the chipmaker weathered a rocky 2001.

The Kyro 3 died, Imagination Tech. did not.  It was saved, in part, by a deal it had signed with ARM Holdings plc (LON:ARM), a fellow UK chipmaker, who had come to dominate the fast-growing mobile phone market.  That deal would prove the key to the company's future market direction.

III. A New Era -- The PowerVR Series MBX

Imagination Tech.'s first mobile hit came around the middle of the last decade with the MBX GPU cores.  From Intel to Texas Instruments (TI) Inc.'s (TXN), Imagination Tech. would come to find many willing partners and would be featured in many early smartphones and PDAs.  But it was not until the launch of the Apple iPhone in 2007 that attention began to focus on the largely unrecognized 90s graphics refugee in the mobile space.

PowerVR MBX Family (dominant from 2005-2009)

  • Single GPU core
  • Single pipeline, texture mapping unit (TMU)
  • (originally) 130 nm
  • Announced in Feb. 2001
  • Imagination Tech's first major mobile hit
  • Direct X 7
  • OpenGL 1.1
  • MBX Lite 3D
  • Tuned for power consumption
  • Bundled into the Intel Corp. (INTC) 2700G mobile coprocessor

                Intel 2700
  • Used in the Samsung S5L8900

    iPhone first gen
                       [Image Source: ArsTechnica]
  • MBX 3D
  • More powerful
  • Used in TI OMAP 2430

IV. Multi-core GPUs Introduced With the Series 5, Series 5XT

With mobile gaming shifting towards the smartphone, Imagination Tech. was experiencing booming sales and strong demand for more powerful GPUs.  It responded with the Series 5 and a 5XT, which includes multi-core GPUs for the first time.

PowerVR Series 5 (dominant from 2009-Present)

PowerVR SGX 5 Series implementation
  • Single GPU core
  • One or more pipelines, TMUs
  • SGX 520/530
    • Announced July 2005
    • 1 pipe (520) or 2 pipes (530) / 1 TMU
    • 200 MHz
    • OpenGL ES 2.0
    • Used in Texas Instruments OMAP 3420/3430

      OMAP 3
  • SGX 535
  • SGX 540
  • SGX545
    • Announced Jan. 2010
    • 45 or 65 nm
    • 4 pipes
    • 2 TMUs
    • 200 MHz
    • Not widely adopted

PowerVR Series 5XT (dominant from 2009-Present)
  • Multiple GPU cores
  • Multiple pipelines, TMUs per core
  • 200 MHz (base)
  • SGX543
    • Announced CES 2009 (January)
    • 32 nm
    • MP2 (2 GPU cores), MP4 (4 GPU cores)
    • 4 pipes / 2 TMUs per core
    • Overclocked up to 250 MHz in the wild
    • Apple A5 (MP2)
    • iPad 2
    • iPhone 4S
    • Apple A5X (MP4)
    • iPad 3
    • Apple A6 (MP3)
    • iPhone 5
  • SGX544
  • Announced June 2010
  • 32 nm
  • MP2 (2 GPU cores), MP4 (4 GPU cores)
  • 4 pipes / 2 TMUs per core
  • Overclocked up to 533 MHz in the wild
  • Samsung Exynos 5 Octa
  • Galaxy S4 (int'l model)
  • SGX554
  • Announced Dec. 2010
  • 32 nm
  • MP2 (2 GPU cores), MP4 (4 GPU cores)
  • 4 pipes / 2 TMUs per core
  • Overclocked up to 280 MHz in the wild
  • Apple A6X
  • iPad (4th Generation)

V. Competition Heats Up

For Imagination Tech., the current mobile market represents both unprecedented opportunity, but also fresh competition.  Qualcomm's Adreno unit (purchased from the spinoff of ATI's mobile business -- "adreno" is an anagram of "radeon") is the biggest smartphone volume competitor to PowerVR, given its widespread Android adoption.

NVIDIA's Tegra SoC line -- which pack mobile GeForce CUDA cores -- is also a threat, although it's been stymied by somewhat weak power performance.  And then there's ARM Holdings, who is now competing against its former partner with Mali.  Last, but not least there's Intel, who like ARM Holdings has gone from a partner of Imagination Tech. to a rival.  With next generation's mobile Iris variants manufactured on a 14 nanometer node, Intel may start to move greater volumes and pose a threat to PowerVR.

But all signs point to a relatively good season for Imagination Tech.

VI. PowerVR Series6 XE, Series6, and Series6 XT

While the PowerVR 5 Series isn't going anywhere and will continue to move product for a few more years, this year will be PowerVR Series 6 year for volume growth.

The Series 6 has three main lines -- the low-end (power efficiency) PowerVR Series6 XE, the mid-range PowerVR Series6 (balance), and the high-end PowerVR Series6 XT (performance).

The below roadmap highlights its chip numbering for ther Series 6XE and Series 6XT product.

PowerVR 6XT "Rogue" roadmap

So far there's a couple chips in the wild with PowerVR Series 6 (XE) cores.

Among these is the Apple A7 SoC which uses an MP4 configuration of the G6430, clocked at 200 MHz.  The G6430 features 64 FP32 operations per "cluster".  With 4 clusters -- 256 total FP32 ops are possible at once.  This is competitive with NVIDA's new K1, which offers 192 cores.  The G6430 also supports large 4096x4096 textures and advanced tile-based deferred rendering (TBDR), a more advanced version of the Z-buffering that Imagination tech is famous for.

It's also important to note that the Power Series 5/5XT model's pipeline-based architecture -- the traditional PowerVR design -- has been replaced at last with unified shader cores (USCs).  In this regard Imagination Tech. has at last travelled the same path as AMD and NVIDIA before it.

The iPhone 5S has already proven blazing fast graphically in AnandTech's benchmarks.

It's possible we could see Apple or Samusng push out a PowerVR 6XT chip (such as the SGX6450 or SGX6650) later this year.  It's also possible Apple and others will simply bump higher up the mainline PowerVR 6 Series, moving to the SGX6630.

MediaTek Inc. (TPE:2454) has an octacore CPU (big.LITTLE; 4x Cortex-A15, 4x Cortex-A7) aimed at Android OEMs which packs a G6200 GPU rumored to be in a quad-core (MP4) configuration. 

MediaTek MT8135

It's expected that we'll see a Snapdragon chips with the PowerVR 6 series (the Snapdragon 410, 610, and 810) as well later in H1.

PowerVR Series 6XE

We'll also likely see a number of budget PowerVR 6XE series design pop up.  The PowerVR 6XE series carries a leaner set of helper coprocessors, but has the same overall USC/TBDR basis as the PowerVR Series 6 and Series 6XT.  It notably offers options with only one processor cluster (MP1), versus Series6 and Series6 XT, which feature a minium of two (MP2) processor clusters.

Source: Imagination Tech. [press release]

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