Samsung boosts ARM's mobile graphics play
Published: 10 February, 2010
Almost four years after ARM bought Norwegian graphics chip developer Falanx, the investment is starting to bear fruit, as graphics processing becomes one of the most differentiators in smartphones. Critically, Samsung has now signed up to license the Mali graphics cores that ARM gained with Falanx, giving the UK firm real weight to expand its business into mobile graphics and take on incumbent Imagination Technologies.
ARM has signed Samsung and another new licensee for Mali, bringing the total number of customers to 27. "One of those Mali licenses was with Samsung who's obviously a leader in the industry and an opinion former in the industry as well. So that's very encouraging for our graphics licensing," ARM CEO Warren East told an analyst earnings call, as reported by EETimes.
It is early days for the Mali royalties to have a real impact on the firm's revenues, but in credibility terms, Samsung is a big step forward, putting ARM up against its former graphics partner Imagination, also from the UK. Other major Mali licensees include STMicro and its handset joint venture ST-Ericsson, and China's MediaTek. Both of these can deliver significant volume as serious graphics performance, especially for gaming, becomes de rigeur even for mass market smartphones and mediaphones.
The importance of graphics to a competitive mobile device was highlighted last summer when Apple upped its stake in Imagination Technologies, hard on the heels of a similar move by Intel. With silicon vendors like Qualcomm and Nvidia creating multicore designs with dedicated graphics processors, both ARM and Imagination are looking at a burgeoning market for their IPR. Apple, which holds a 9.5% stake in Imagination, uses the firm's PowerVR MBX and SGX graphics cores in the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Intel, which holds 14%, is also a licensee. The SGX line was recently topped up with a high end design, the SGX545, which boosts performance from 28m to 40m polygons per second. It also supports a full DirectX 10.1 and OpenGL 3.x feature set.
Imagination has a manufacturing partnership with Samsung, which still uses PowerVR as well as Mali for different designs. ARM felt the need to go it alone in graphics because so many devices will use multiprocessing platforms with coupled CPUs and GPUs, and East said the firm needed to control the converged roadmap. Eventually, the goal would be for software to make use of multiple CPU and GPU resources dynamically, but he said in the EETimes interview that this was "non-trivial problem - as an industry we are some way away from it. We will have to grapple with the software problem for several years."
Showing off the Mali roadmap a year ago, ARM's director of business development, Borgar Ljosland, said: "Today's consumer devices are based on yesterday's platforms and there is a tremendous opportunity for a revolution in the gaming market that hinges on the collaborative efforts of IP providers, foundries and OEMs alike".
The Mali 3D software engine, Mali-JSR184, is widely deployed along with graphics hardware and features in about 80m phone units.