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Can Imagination one-up AMD, Nvidia with PowerVR upgrade?

Posted: 11 Nov 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:PowerVR Series 7  GPU  server 

Imagination Technologies is fighting the graphics core battle against AMD and Nvidia in high-performance computing markets, having unveiled the latest update to its PowerVR graphics cores—Series 7. The architecture yields 35 per cent to 60 per cent performance improvement over its predecessors.

The Series 7 chips are the company's first to support designs that deliver up to 1.5TFlops, using up to 512 cores—16 clusters, each with 32 arithmetic logic units. The high-end configuration targets notebook and console graphics, as well as servers running general-purpose GPU programs, typically under OpenCL. Nvidia has long pioneered with its Cuda environment for the GPU server, a diverse space of scientific and business applications.

Imagination only recently announced its resolve to take on Nvidia with a new technology that will connect its multi-core MIPS processors with large arrays of its PowerVR GPUs to allow its IP customers to create chips that would compete directly with Nvidia's Kepler and Maxwell chips for higher-performance computing. (Read full story here: Interconnected MIPS, GPUs on Imagination's horizon)

Imagination hopes its SoC customers can offer more power-efficient GPUs for high-end computing, just as ARM's partners are trying to offer more power-efficient CPUs for servers. The company has no public design wins in the sector yet.

The high-end performance could also help PowerVR SoCs get into laptops such as those made by Apple, which currently uses AMD Radeon chips in its notebooks and desktops but PowerVR in iPhones and iPads. Imagination also targets video game consoles such as the Sony Playstation and Microsoft Xbox, which also use AMD graphics chips.

Imagination Technologies Series 7XT

A high-end Series 7XT supports optional HPC or Windows DX11 packages.

Hardware security and tessellation

The Series 7 chips are the company's first to support hardware-backed security and virtualisation. They use techniques popular across a range of processors, including Imagination's MIPS cores. That includes creating a hardware-backed root of trust with a key stored in protected memory in a privileged zone not accessible by the operating system.

Imagination Technologies Series 7XT

Series 7 security supports hardware-backed secure boot, drivers, and apps.

The security serves a number of applications, including content protection for ultra-high-definition video in set-top boxes. Virtualisation is also key for server and automotive graphics. Cars are increasingly using SoCs to run digital dashboard and infotainment displays, and they need to isolate those applications so they don't interfere with each other, a spokesman for Imagination said.

Imagination will provide an optional software package for supporting the latest H.265 (HEVC) codec on the new cores. The move suggests the company could deliver hardware support for the codec in future cores.

Another new feature with Series 7 is hardware support for tessellation, a feature that enables smooth scaling of graphics, typically for games. The chips also have integrated power management to appeal to entry-level handsets and Internet of Things applications.

Overall, "Imagination has shown the scalability of their GPU design in several ways," said Jon Peddie, principal of Jon Peddie Research. "The company has managed to increase its market share in the face of stiff competition from ARM, Vivante, and Qualcomm by being agile and very responsive to their customers' requests," though he has not finished his latest report on market share figures.

The Power 7 series comes in in two families: one optimised for performance per watt and the other for performance per die space. They are currently available for licensing and are being sampled to key customers, though the company has not finalized RTL for the cores.

Imagination expects its first customers to ship products using the cores late next year.

- Rick Merritt
  EE Times

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