The mobile market is a gold mine for successful chip-makers, but it’s especially good for IP providers like Imagination and ARM, which aren't burdened by the heavy lifting of manufacturing and still end up with products in hundreds of millions (if not billions) of devices.
In this mostly ARM-dominated market, Imagination now offers design IP for major SoC components, from MIPS CPUs to PowerVR GPUs and connectivity modules, in devices from the ultra-low-end up to the flagship level.
At the bottom of the spectrum, Imagination offers the I-class MIPS CPU cores to compete against ARM's Cortex-A7. At the high-end, it has the P-class MIPS cores, comparable to ARM’s Cortex-A15. For the mid-range, customers can choose between the I- and P-class cores, depending on their application.
Although the company acquired MIPS just one and a half years ago, Imagination has been in the GPU business for a lot longer. Naturally, it has a wider variety of options at all levels, from the low-end half-cluster G6050 (for ultra-low-end devices) to the flagship-worthy GX6650 (a mobile Kepler competitor) and the ray tracing hybrid GPU, the GR6500. Notice that last year’s high-end GPU, the G6430 found in Apple’s iPad Air, is now offered at the mid-range.
Imagination offers a variety of video accelerators, too. But in terms of ISPs and connectivity modules, there seems to be only one option for each across all market segments.
It’s no secret that the mobile market is dominated by ARM-based CPUs, with Imagination only getting into the host processing space recently by acquiring MIPS Technologies, and Intel not having managed to establish a strong foothold yet either.
In the mobile graphics market, things are a little different; Imagination is the established leader there. However, ARM has been seeing more success with its Mali GPU IP thanks to Samsung, but also other smaller licensees in China. While not a direct IP competitor, Qualcomm’s integrated graphics technology is also taking from Imagination’s market share recently. In 2013, Imagination’s slice of the mobile GPU pie shrank from 52% to 37%.
As we can see from the table, Nvidia lost most of its market share in the mobile graphics market last year. But with the switch to its Kepler architecture, and soon Maxwell, the company could recover some of that. As we've already seen from Tegra K1, its newest design is a lot more competitive than the previous-gen SoCs.
Nvidia also has an advantage with the OpenGL 4.4 API support, which will take time for the competition to implement. Before that happens, there's a good chance we'll see games ported down to the mobile space from the desktop, which would run on Nvidia's Tegra processors. For now, though, that competitive advantage is mainly hypothetical. Without the design wins and showcase titles, there's not much else to report on. At least other companies are pushed to innovate faster.
In this GFXBench 3.0-derived benchmark that loops 30 times, charted out by the folks at Imagination, it’s easy to see which GPU maintains its performance over time and which ones throttle after a period of time. If we're to believe this information, the PowerVR Rogue GPU doesn't throttle, while the competition does. Of course, we know that there are unaccounted variables to consider. How big are the form factors being compared? What clock rates are being used? What device vendors do with the SoCs they pick has a ton of influence on how well they run in the wild.
Then again, we've noticed similar trends in our own lab. Apple's devices running iOS tend to start and finish strong in GFXBench, while a lot of the Android-based competitors without PowerVR graphics are far less consistent. Just look at the issues we ran into inSamsung Galaxy S4 Slows Down Under Heavy Load in 4.4.
For now, Imagination remains a mobile graphics leader with healthy market share and strong GPU IP. The competition is getting fiercer every year though, so we'll see how the space plays out.