New Arm processor to bring 3D, gaming to smartphones

Arm announces Mali T604 graphics processor supporting DirectX 11 and OpenCL 1.1

Arm hopes to bring high-performance graphics applications such as 3D imaging and gaming to handheld devices like smartphones while keeping battery life intact with a new graphics processor design it announced on Wednesday.

Everyday multimedia applications like video playback and image recognition draw a lot of battery life, but the company's new Mali T604 graphics processor will accelerate those applications while drawing less power, said Ian Smythe, director of marketing at ARM. The Mali T604 will be able to handle 3D imaging and full high-definition video.

Arm also makes CPUs that go into most of world's smartphones, and the new graphics processor will work in conjunction with CPUs to improve performance. The graphics processor delivers a five-time performance improvement over its predecessors, and when built inside a chip, consumes less than 850 milliwatts.

Smartphones have evolved over years, and today are handling a larger load of multimedia applications, Smythe said. Tasks such as gesture and speech recognition can also be off-loaded from CPUs to graphics processors. Smythe said.

Arm licenses its processor designs to chip manufacturers such as Samsung, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and other companies. The company didn't announce licensees for the graphics processor, but the chip designs could be found in devices like smartphones and set-top boxes two years from now, Smythe said.

The graphics processor is designed to work with the company's latest Cortex-A15 CPU, which was announced in September. The A15, which is designed for devices ranging from smartphones to servers, could scale up in performance with up to 16 cores, with each CPU running at 2.5GHz. Both processors have coherent hardware caches and interfaces to provide a performance advantage and reduction in power consumption, Smythe said.

The concept of harnessing the power of graphics processors to boost system performance originates from PCs. Many servers, laptops and PCs now use graphics cards alongside CPUs to boost tasks like gaming, viewing video and image manipulation. Applications like Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Mozilla's Firefox and Google's Chrome are implementing the capability to offload tasks like rendering of HTML 5 or Flash video content to graphics processors.

Some of the world's fastest supercomputers also use graphics processors to speed math and science applications. But CPUs are still important, and remain at the center of processing everyday tasks such as Web browsing and running productivity applications.

Developers also need to write applications to harness the parallel-processing capabilities of CPUs and graphics processors. The Mali T604 will be compatible with Microsoft's DirectX 11 and OpenCL 1.1, which are competing programming frameworks for parallel task execution.

DirectX 11 is a set of APIs (application programming interfaces) that are capable of bringing more realistic images to Microsoft's Windows 7 OS, which is used on PCs. But Windows 7 works on Intel processors and does not work with Arm processors, while Microsoft's smartphone OS -- Windows Phone 7 -- does not include full DirectX 11 compatibility. Arm's Smythe declined to comment whether Microsoft's smartphone OS would eventually build in full DirectX 11 capabilities.

The company is providing support for the DirectX 11 framework in case Arm licensees need it, Smythe said.

"We really can't comment on Microsoft's roadmap," Smythe said. "We see it as a requirement from our semiconductor customers to have the capability to support DX."

Microsoft did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The OpenCL standard includes a C-like programming language with APIs to enable parallel task execution. IBM, Apple, Intel, Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices are among the backers of OpenCL.

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