ARM preps Mali GPU for low-cost Android tablets

The GPU is to help manufacturers build less expensive tablets

ARM has developed a new, entry-level version of its Mali graphics processor that could help expand the market for low-cost Android tablets.

The GPU, called the Mali-450, is designed to help manufacturers build tablets that cost less than market-leading products like Apple's iPad, which starts at $399, but provide good enough graphics performance to keep most users satisfied.

With touchscreens and high-definition video now fairly mainstream, the GPUs in tablets and smartphones account for a bigger share of the cost, and take up more space on the CPU on which they're integrated.

Some manufacturers want cheaper parts, however, that offer reasonable graphics performance and occupy less die space. That's where the 450 is targeted, said Ian Smythe, director of marketing in ARM's Media Processing Division.

The new GPU is offered with up to eight cores and offers double the performance of its predecessor, the Mali-400, which has up to four cores, Smythe said. The Mali-450 is expected to appear in tablets in the first half of next year, he said.

Tablet makers are demanding a wide range of price and performance characteristics, so ARM is essentially bifurcating its GPU road map. It will offer the Mali-T600 family for higher-end devices, and the Mali-400 family, including the 450, for the low end.

Both can do gaming and video playback, but only the higher-end parts do "computational graphics," Smythe said. That includes tasks like matching points on two images to do facial recognition, or stitching photographs together into a panorama.

ARM supplies the CPU designs used in most tablets and smartphones but it's a relative newcomer to graphics. ARM entered the GPU market in 2006 when it bought Norwegian chip maker Falanx. It's since built the team in Norway from 20 to about 80 people, Smythe said.

The GPUs in Apple's iOS devices are based on a design by ARM's U.K. rival Imagination Technologies. ARM does better in Android-based devices, supplying GPUs for about 20 percent of the smartphones and more than half of Android tablets, Smythe said.

ARM expects its licensees to sell about 100 million Mali GPUs this year, up from 48 million in 2011. "We've not quite caught up to our CPU colleagues who are shipping several billion units per year, but we're making progress," he said.

The best-known smartphone with an ARM GPU is the Samsung Galaxy SII, which uses the Mali-400. The Galaxy SIII, expected later this year, will use the higher-end T604. The Mali-T658, announced in November, should start appearing in phones and tablets in the first half of next year.

Further out, ARM is developing a high-end part code-named Skrymir, named after a giant in Norse mythology, which is due in 2014.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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