ARM is Serious About Graphics

ARM has refreshed their graphics IP to keep pace with the competition

Ask most computer users from 10 years ago who ARM is, and very few would give the correct answer.  Some well informed people might mention “Intel” and “StrongARM” or “XScale”, but ARM remained a shadowy presence until we saw the rise of the Smartphone.  Since then, ARM has built up their brand, much to the chagrin of companies like Intel and AMD.  Partners such as Samsung, Apple, Qualcomm, MediaTek, Rockchip, and NVIDIA have all worked with ARM to produce chips based on the ARMv7 architecture, with Apple being the first to release the first ARMv8 (64 bit) SOCs.  The multitude of ARM architectures are likely the most shipped chips in the world, going from very basic processors to the very latest Apple A7 SOC.

The ARMv7 and ARMv8 architectures are very power efficient, yet provide enough performance to handle the vast majority of tasks utilized on smartphones and tablets (as well as a handful of laptops).  With the growth of visual computing, ARM also dedicated itself towards designing competent graphics portions of their chips.  The Mali architecture is aimed at being an affordable option for those without access to their own graphics design groups (NVIDIA, Qualcomm), but competitive with others that are willing to license their IP out (Imagination Technologies).

ARM was in fact one of the first to license out the very latest graphics technology to partners in the form of the Mali-T600 series of products.  These modules were among the first to support OpenGL ES 3.0 (compatible with 2.0 and 1.1) and DirectX 11.  The T600 architecture is very comparable to Imagination Technologies’ Series 6 and the Qualcomm Adreno 300 series of products.  Currently NVIDIA does not have a unified mobile architecture in production that supports OpenGL ES 3.0/DX11, but they are adapting the Kepler architecture to mobile and will be licensing it to interested parties.  Qualcomm does not license out Adreno after buying that group from AMD (Adreno is an anagram of Radeon).

Truly, in the history of ARM, graphics have taken a back seat as compared to CPU performance and power consumption.  Now that we are used to graphically rich environments and workspaces, they had to really step up to stay competitive with their licensed IP.  Otherwise, they were bound to fall behind and have to deal with fewer outfits licensing their graphics IP along with their CPUs.  By developing the graphics portion, ARM has the potential to receive far more in royalties for every product than if they just licensed out the CPU or CPU architecture.

The T600 series were competitive in terms of overall capabilities, but most benchmarks show the Adreno and Series 6 products to be faster overall.  Obviously, something needed to be done.  ARM went on a rampage with the T600 design and heavily optimized it for performance, flexibility, and power consumption.  The result is the new Mali-T700 series of products.


Mali-T700 Overview

ARM is today announcing two new members to the Mali family; the high end Mali-T760, and the very efficient Mali-T720.  These are based on the older (but still relatively new) Mali-T600 series of products.  They share many of the same architectural features, but ARM has gone through with a fine toothed comb to lower overall power consumption while improving performance and features.  ARM feels that these two products are flexible enough to cover the entire spectrum of graphics performance from the entry level GPU to the premium user experience.

There are a few interesting things about ARM that many likely do not know.  The common assumption is that ARM develops a basic design and then licenses it out to other companies, and those companies are responsible for the exact place and route using standard cells from their pure-play foundry of choice.  This could in theory work, but it would be very inefficient and very time consuming for any partner to implement such a design.  To get around this ARM works very closely with the major foundry partners and develops a standard cell and design rules that are customized to each individual process node.  For example, the 28 nm HKMG nodes for GLOBALFOUNDRIES and TSMC are not identical, and so the design rules developed by ARM for each individual process are going to be different.  This allows a great amount of flexibility on the part of the licensee, as well as greater overall performance and power efficiency given the different process characteristics.

It seems that the Mali-T600 series were designed with “time to market” in mind rather than extreme amounts of optimizations.  In some benchmarks I have seen, the Mali products are trailing the competition in performance when looking at specific TDPs and markets.  ARM has addressed this with the Mali-T700 series.  These are very heavily optimized products that offer superior performance per milliwatt as compared to the previous T600 series.

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