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With new graphics chips, ARM grabs at cheaper phones, tablets

Emerging markets are seeing huge growth in mid- and lower-tier smartphones. ARM seeks to catch some of that trend with its new line of Mali graphics-chip designs.

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CEO Simon Segars wants ARM to grow in mobile graphics. ARM

These days, even cheap smartphones and tablets need to handle complex graphics, with people using the devices for mobile gaming and high-resolution video.

ARM, which designs the computing chips in nearly every smartphone, hopes to seize on that trend, introducing Monday a new suite of its Mali graphics-chip designs aimed at the low- and mid-tier mobile markets. The Cambridge, UK-based company unveiled three new graphics chips, a video processor and a display processor, which it hopes to sell to the mobile, automotive and digital TV segments. The new line will update its current mid-range mobile offerings and complement its graphics designs in the high-end and very low-end.

"The capabilities of these devices are ratcheting up each year," said Steve Steele, an ARM senior product manager. "You can see a mid-tier device doing what a super-premium product did two years ago."

Since introducing its Mali graphics designs in 2006, ARM has been able to quickly grow the business, with 400 million graphics processing units selling in 2013, up from 150 million the year before. Mali chip designs are now used by electronics giant Samsung and Taiwanese chip maker MediaTek, and are in most tablets powered by Google's Android operating system. The new suite of GPUs and processors could help the company better compete against Qualcomm's Adreno chips, which have a leading position in mobile graphics, and Imagination's PowerVR technology, which is used in Apple's iPhones.

The new offerings could also be a way for ARM to try capturing the rapid growth of mobile devices in emerging markets, where low- and mid-tier phones and tablets are the top sellers. For 2014, market researcher IDC predicted smartphone sales in emerging markets will surge 32 percent, while mature markets will grow by only 5 percent.

On Monday, ARM unveiled the Mali-T860, Mali-T830 and Mali-T820 graphics chips. The T860 will focus on the higher reaches of the mid-tier market, supporting high-resolution 4K video and offering improved energy efficiency from its past designs. The T830 and T820 will provide faster performance than past comparable ARM graphics chips.

"From a strategic standpoint going forward," Canaccord Genuity analyst Matthew Ramsay said, "[Mali] becomes a more important part of the business," since GPUs -- once solely used for generating graphics -- are increasingly being utilized for computing and calculation in devices.

As part of the announcement, ARM also unveiled a new video processor, the Mali-V550, and display processor, the Mali-DP550. The announcement was the first time ARM has unveiled a whole suite of graphics technologies at once. ARM executive Steele said that's because the company did more to integrate the technologies of the new GPUs and two processors than in past generations, which should allow ARM's customers to develop new devices faster than before.

The new Mali technology should appear in electronics starting in late 2015 and early 2016.