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Imagination's Quest To Provide A Third Major Mobile Platform

Wearables, Home Entertainment, And Automotive

Three of the hottest potentially high-growth markets being tested by almost everyone in the tech industry right now are wearables, home entertainment, and automotive.

Wearables

The smartphone and tablet spaces are already so saturated. As a result, a long list of companies is looking for the next big billion dollar industry to enter. Imagination, like Qualcomm, Nvidia, Intel, and others, is also interested in capturing a large portion of these new “smart” product markets, to establish itself as a leader ahead of other capable technology providers.

MIPS, which is now owned by Imagination, is part of the alliance for Android Wear that Google set up. There has been a lot of talk about smart watches over the past two years, but nobody seems to have gotten it right. Android Wear, as a platform for smart watches, is trying to make sense of it all thanks to voice control and Google Now notifications.

If Android Wear turns out to be as popular for smart watches as Android was for smartphones, then all of these initial players are likely to win big, from chip designers to manufacturers.

Imagination once again promises to offer almost everything a manufacturer could want from a smart watch SoC, from a single microcontroller for fitness tracking to high-end processors with many of the same components you’d see in a smartphone, which is not surprising considering these smart watches will have their own operating systems and even apps.

One example of such a design is Ingenic’s Newton modular platform. It includes a low-power 1 GHz MIPS CPU, 2D graphics hardware, support for up to 3 GB of RAM, 802.11a/b/g/n in the 2.4 GHz band, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, FM, sensors, and even USB ports.

Home Entertainment

Another market expected to explode in the next few years is smart TVs, along with micro-consoles and set top boxes. All three product types exist within the same category, since they're more or less serving the same folks (think about the Xbox customer who wants to both play games and watch movies on his TV). The only difference is how much performance is needed from each device.

If you're looking at a smart TV, for example, the focus won't be on gaming, but rather delivering enough speed for a satisfying user interface and HD (or 4K) video playback. Those more interesting in gaming will encounter an SoC with faster host processing and graphics, naturally. Customers looking to build a higher-end console can even opt for Imagination’s hybrid ray tracing logic that promises higher graphics quality for a lower cost than more powerful GPUs.

Automotive

The automotive market is not necessarily new, but it’s only now showing signs of explosive growth for companies like Imagination and ARM, since cars are now poised to become “smart” too, just like almost everything else.

On one hand, this is happening because more new vehicles are adopting tablet-like digital dashboards. On the other, we're about to enter a world where cars have to drive themselves, and communicate with other cars and infrastructure around them. As such, they need to become more advanced in terms of computing power, enabling all sorts of complex tasks.

Imagination doesn’t seem to have a highly customizable offering portfolio yet, most likely because the space is very sensitive to one-off designs, and instead prefers a one-size-fits-all approach. The chips themselves are a miniscule part of a car’s total cost, so it doesn’t make much of a difference if the SoC costs $10 more. It is a market, however, that prefers performance and reliability, and that’s really where Imagination has to deliver.

Imagination’s biggest competitors seem to be Nvidia (which is actually the only chip maker that’s part of Google’s Open Automotive Alliance), Qualcomm, and Intel. It’s still very early, so a lot can change over the next few years.

Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.