ARM 'Mali' game chip--4 cores to go

ARM, the U.K. company that quietly designs chips used in cell phones worldwide, wants you to know that they're in the gaming business too.

ARM, the U.K. company that quietly designs chips used in cell phones worldwide, wants you to know that they're in the gaming business too.

And this goes beyond pushing around tiny figures on your tiny cell phone screen. ARM's Mali graphics processing unit (GPU) can scale up to four cores, according to Ian Drew, vice president of marketing at ARM, speaking in a phone interview last week. ARM got its graphics technology from Norway-based Falanx Microsystems, which ARM purchased in 2006.

ARM Mali graphics
ARM Mali graphics ARM

The four-core Mali-400 MP GPU targets HD (high-definition) performance on mobile phones, set top boxes, and portable and console gaming. The GPU delivers up to one-billion-pixels-per-second graphics. Just to put this into perspective, though, Nvidia broke the one-billion-pixels-per-second barrier in 2000.

High-end game chips from Nvidia and AMD used in sophisticated PC graphics typically have hundreds of processing cores. But tamping down power consumption is job one for ARM graphics in small devices. "The graphics architecture is really about memory bandwidth. And memory bandwidth is the thing that eats the power," Drew said. So, ARM needs to keep memory bandwidth to a minimum, according to Drew.

The ability to scale up to four cores, however, allows ARM to tackle more demanding graphics than it has to date. As higher-end games come over from the PC space, the games--and the smartphones they run on--will be designed for "different screen resolutions and different bandwidths coming in and out," Drew said. For smartphones, "the bigger the screen, the more triangles (graphics) you can put on there" and the more graphics horsepower that is required.

The push into higher-performance graphics is also being driven by the need to do 1080p video on large-screen TVs via smartphones and other gaming devices, according to Drew.

Mali supports OpenGL ES, which consists of subsets of desktop OpenGL. Open GL is one of the most widely-used standards for PC and device graphics.

Mali technology has 27 licensees to date. The licensees include Amlogic, Broadcom, LG Electronics, Motorola, Samsung, and Siemens.

The Mali-200 GPU is the most widely-licensed GPU from ARM today and uses programmable shader capabilities. Shaders are used to render graphics.

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