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Imagination, Apple graphics tech supplier, talks future

Imagination, purveyor of graphics chip tech to Apple, talks about the future of its GPUs with CNET.

Imagination's graphics chip tech is used in the iPad Mini Retina (above), the iPad Air, and the iPhone 5S.
Imagination's graphics chip tech is used in the iPad Mini Retina (above), the iPad Air, and the iPhone 5S. Apple

John Metcalfe, executive vice president and COO at Imagination Technologies, graphics chip supplier to Apple, chatted with CNET for a few minutes about the future.

Imagination's graphics chip technology -- which must manage, among other things, the millions of pixels on the display -- has been used consistently by Apple in its mobile products, and Imagination's technology appears prominently in the iPad Air, iPad Mini Retina, and iPhone 5S.

I asked Metcalfe in a recent interview about the future of its graphics chips and, by extension, technologies that could appear in future Apple products -- though the latter is obviously only a decision that Apple can ultimately make.

Q: What is your next high-performance GPU and what is the focus?
Metcalfe: The PowerVR Series6XT. The focus of the changes in the 6XT is improving performance per milliwatt or performance per watt.

(Note that performance-per-watt is shorthand for increasing the performance of a chip without increasing -- or without a disproportionately large increase in -- power consumption.)

Why the focus on performance-per-watt?
Metcalfe: High-end smartphones [and tablets to some extent] today are limited. The performance at the start of the day is higher, let's say, than performance after 10 minutes of gaming because the processors get heated up and thermal shutdown occurs and performance has to be throttled because heat can't be dissipated.

And the number of cores is important too, correct?
Metcalfe: Graphics tend to have a lot of parallel workloads. You're processing data that covers millions of pixels. And it's quite easy to packet those workloads up between different [processing] units. And [GPUs] have very good scalability. In other words, you have a unit of performance that you can replicate. " (Scalability in this case means that adding a core or "unit" results in a corresponding, or linear, increase in performance.)

What about the trend toward hybrids? It's not unreasonable to assume that Apple has bigger plans for the A series processors. After all, they have made a big deal out of the "desktop-class" performance of the 64-bit A7 chip.
Metcalfe: We've seen a trend of hybrid tablet PCs. We have our eye firmly on moving higher up the performance ladder. Not only hybrids but full PCs. We would need to get to higher performance than the cores we have currently announced. But we don't have to change the architecture fundamentally in any way.