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Apple graphics-chip supplier hints at future iPad (Q&A)

The graphics chip tech in Apple's iPad and iPhone is due for a major update. Imagination Technologies describes what may be in store.

Hypothetically, Imagination's PowerVR graphics used in this iPad 4 could be squeezed into an iPad Mini Retina.
Hypothetically, Imagination's PowerVR graphics used in this iPad 4 could be squeezed into an iPad Mini Retina.

Imagination Technologies, a graphics-chip designer that supplies the graphics tech in the iPad and iPhone, offers some tantalizing insights into what could power the next iPad.

CNET spoke Wednesday with Tony King-Smith, vice president of marketing at Imagination Technologies, about what's coming down the pike. While he would not confirm what's inside future iPads, it's a safe bet that Apple -- which has a 9.5 percent stake in the U.K. company -- will continue to tap its technology.

Q: Imagination chips are inside the newest iPad and iPhone, correct?
King-Smith: The [graphics] core currently in the iPad and iPhone is [Imagination's] PowerVR SGX544.

What's next for Imagination?
King-Smith: The PowerVR Series6 "Rogue." The big thing is that it enables you to do much more on the [graphics processing unit]. For example, it uses the latest API from Khronos, OpenGL ES 3.0.

And Series6 is fully optimized for GPU Compute and designed for OpenCL. Our mainstream cores are now intersecting with [achieving] Xbox and PlayStation 3-class graphics.

(Editor's note: GPU Compute refers to utilizing the GPU to handle more of the processing. That is, "offloading" more tasks from the central processing unit, or CPU.)

What would a Series6 do for a future iPad -- or any tablet for that matter?
King-Smith: You have tablets with very-high-resolution displays so you need more GPU horsepower to drive every pixel on that display. And more shader horsepower allows more sophisticated effects.

GPU compute is particularly well suited for image processing, so taking camera input and post-processing it, for example. Or using the GPU to make products much more aware of their environment. Using cameras and various other sensors and feeding that into the GPU.

Hypothetically speaking, could you squeeze high-end Imagination graphics into, let's say, a 7.9-inch tablet like the iPad Mini with a Retina-class display?
King-Smith: Of course. Look at the Samsung Galaxy S4. That has got a PowerVR Series5XT GPU in it. That's driving a full 1080p display on a 5-inch phone -- an extremely constrained form factor.

(Editor's note: The Galaxy S4 has a 5-inch 1,920x1,080 pixel display, which comes to a whopping 441 pixels per inch).

Apple seems to be putting greater emphasis on the GPU. How would you describe the difference between a GPU and CPU?
King-Smith: What's incredibly distorting is the number of [processor] cores. If you look at a quad-core CPU, that's all about scheduling various sequential tasks in the operating system and sharing them around the CPUs. Very different from a quad-core GPU. For example, in a quad-core 544, each of those graphics cores has four pipelines. So a 544 has 16 execution pipes. That's what matters.

The more GPU cores you have, you can pretty much linearly scale the performance...better than 95 percent. That's the fundamental difference from a CPU. When you add CPU cores, it doesn't double or quadruple the performance. That's because they're all sharing memory and the way tasks are allocated and so on.

When can we expect Series6 Rogue silicon?
King-Smith: We've already got 10 licensees. Silicon is coming out in the second half. And you'll see some strong platforms coming out very shortly with Series5 with OpenGL and GPU compute too.