Imagination Versus ARM Versus Intel
Up until a few years ago, most of us only cared about the x86 chip market and its competitors: AMD and Intel. More recently, though, the battle erupted between Intel and the whole ecosystem of ARM partners.
Intel is trying its best to muscle into the huge (and growing) mobile space dominated by ARM and its licensees, while ARM, through its partners, appears determined to make headway in the more profitable PC and server markets dominated by Intel. While their strengths don't overlap yet, the very fact both companies are trying to encroach upon each others' turf keeps them on their toes. This helps us as consumers to benefit from efficient and high-performance processors that don't break the bank.
More competition almost always proves to benefit the end-user. And with the MIPS CPU architecture now owned by Imagination, the company becomes a veteran in the embedded chip market seemingly able to compete toe-to-toe with ARM (especially) and Intel.
So far, MIPS is a more obscure platform in the consumer market, and it has never really tried that hard to get into consumer devices either. While apparently more efficient, MIPS CPUs are usually built on process nodes a generation behind what ARM's partners are using, negating many of their advantages over ARM-based processors. Since MIPS chips haven’t been in high demand (or even well-supported in popular operating systems), OEMs also had few reasons to choose MIPS over ARM.
Now, the architecture is in more competent hands, which will hopefully put it on the latest process node and allow the inherent strengths of the MIPS architecture to shine.
In the comparison with competing high-end ARM CPUs above (which is again provided by Imagination, so do with the information what you will), we see its MIPS P5600 “Warrior” CPU manage to beat the ARM competition (likely Cortex-A15) in performance/MHz, performance/mW, and also performance/area. Keeping in mind that the other factors were most likely normalized in these comparisons, it’s still impressive that MIPS-based CPUs can be this competitive with ARM in the mobile market already.
Having a good product isn’t everything, though. And if Intel has its work cut out for it, Imagination isn't going to have any easier of a time with MIPS, a much less known brand. But with a proper “hero” CPU core that can be used in a few popular mobile devices, Imagination could get the awareness it needs to gain customers and significant market share in the mobile CPU space.
Of course, ARM isn’t Imagination’s only competitor. While Intel is currently more of an investor (it owns around 5% of the company) and customer of Imagination, having used its PowerVR technology in a number of Atom processors, it’s also poised to become an opposing faction. As both Intel and Imagination fight ARM for dominance of the mobile CPU market, they will inevitably become competitors themselves, which means we could soon have three prominent architectures powering our devices.
In the past this would’ve been a lot harder, because operating systems went with one architecture and then stuck with that for decades. But thanks to Android’s Dalvik VM, it’s now possible to have real competition, not just between a couple of companies like what we see in the PC space, but rather multiple designs suited to different purposes.