Intel's next-gen cellphone chips likely to include SM 3.0 capability

Chicago (IL) - Among the armada of new Intel processors that are scheduled to hit the market in 2006 is a replacement for the XScale PXA270 processor: The "Hermon" platform will include a faster CPU, which could be complemented by a Shader Model 3.0 capable graphics processor that is based on technology blueprints provided by Imagination Technologies.

The news of a possible bump in 3D graphics power for Intel's upcoming cellphone platform comes as Imagination Technologies, a British IP company that develops graphics cores, announced that it has licensed its PowerVR SGX chip to Intel.

Intel currently uses Imagination's PowerVR MBX technology in its 2700G graphics chip that typically is offered in combination with XScale PXA270 ("Bulverde" core) processors. The CPU, which was announced in April of 2004, has showed up in recent months especially in PDAs such as Dell's Axim device. The technology is powerful enough to smoothly run a PDA port of Quake 3 Arena in 640x480 pixel resolution.

Hermon, Intel's next-generation cellphone platform, will integrate the PXA290-series of Xscale processors ("Monahans" core) and are expected to deliver a substantial increasing in performance. The PXA290 was demonstrated at IDF Fall with 1.248 GHz clock speed and the capability to run H.264 video in 640x480 pixel resolution. The fact that Intel is aiming for a Q2 release of Hermon and that Imagination will launch the PowerVR SGX in the same time frame suggest that Hermon's graphic chip will be based on the architecture of the new processor.

The SGX, which is likely to be called 2900G when released in an Intel package, supports OpenGL ES 2.0, D3D Mobile, Open VG, Open GL 2.0 and DirectX9+ running under Linux, Symbian, WinCE and Windows Mobile OS. The fillrate of the chip range from 200 million to 1.2 billion pixels per second at a clock speed of 200 MHz. Polygon performance is rated at 2 to 13.5 million polygons per second.

While Imagination is fairly unknown in the US, it has a large presence in several other global markets such as Asia-Pacific. The firm aims to expand its reach into cellphones that are offered in the US and plans to be present in about 10 million graphics sold in 2006. Other than ATI and Nvidia, who design, build and sell discrete graphics solutions for mobile platforms, Imagination simply develops the design of the chip. The blueprint then is licensed to semiconductor firms such as Texas Instruments, which typically manufacture the chips and integrate them into their own mobile platforms. Although those firms pay licensing fees to Imagination, they can save development time and cost on their part and can leverage their production expertise to increase margins over a processor that is purchased as an already manufactured chip.

Peter McGuinness, business development director for the company in the US, told TG Daily that he expects that 3D will become important for the mobile phone space and that the technology may take the same route as on the PC. "Within four years," he said, "80% of cellphones will be 3D capable." While Imagination's designs will increase in performance over time, McGuiness said that the company aims to balance performance and battery power. Wit a power consumption of about 25 mW for the current MBX part, he believes that Imagination currently has the most power efficient graphics chip on the market. In terms of performance, he considers the firm's designs to be "competitive."

The SGX and also Intel's PXA2900 are being scheduled to be released in Q2 of this year, but they are not expected to be available in commercial products anytime soon. Designing, developing and building a new cellphone consumes time - typically about 18 months. McGuinness expects SGX-based graphics chips to be available in phones by the end of 2007 or early 2008.