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The best graphics chip is the one seen the most

The best graphics chip is the one seen the most
by Don Dingee on 04-10-2012 at 2:48 pm

If I say “graphics chip”, most techies will say NVIDIA or AMD. But in the new post-PC world , neither of these players holds the key to the future. One that does is a little company making 43 cents on every latest version iPad and iPhone. Another is designing their own approach. Should you care what graphics is in your phone?

My friend Pat Meier-Johnson emailed me a press release just before Design West outlining a study from Jon Peddie Research with a powerful observation: Imagination Technologies Supplies More GPU IP Than All Others Combined.

Imagination most notably supplies Apple, Intel, Samsung, and Texas Instruments, and according to the report holds 50% of the mobile device graphics IP sold today. Their PowerVR brand has quietly become the graphics part of choice in most places, and the Apple win is funding future development.

Qualcomm, which has taken a unique vertically-integrated approach with their own CPU core and graphics core designs, is holding their own at a respectable 33% share and may have a big hit in the Nokia Lumia 900 (not on their most advanced chipset, but that’s not surprising given the price point).

The next largest IP supplier is Vivante, with 4.8% and customers like Marvell, Freescale, and a number of MIPS licensees.

NVIDIA, which one would think would have a natural edge in all this, is supplying a paltry 3.2% of mobile graphics IP, all inside their own SoCs. ARM’s graphics IP has a low 2.6% share, a bit surprising given what they know about AMBA interconnects, optimizing performance with an ARM core, and their open approach.

Benchmarking is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s plenty of fodder in the battle between Apple and NVIDIA on whose cutting edge graphics implementation is better. Apple leans on the fact they are driving a very dense display in the latest iPad smoothly. NVIDIA has an advantage in their quad-core and higher memory bandwidth implementation, which performs well in certain benchmarks.

This all begs the question: does it matter what’s inside a phone or tablet?

In the noise and time crunch of today’s content, users have become visually fixated. Visual, combined with social sharing, is the only way to get and keep their attention. If something is visually slow and unpolished, it’s not even competitive now. As Marvell CEO Dr. Sehat Sutardja said a couple years ago: “Nobody wants a dumbphone.” The quickest way to a dumbphone, in the consumer’s mind, is bad graphics.

Both phone developers and app developers are responding. Samsung markets on the beauty of their OLED display, and Apple responded with their “retina” display in the latest iPad. Instagram just hauled down $1B for making pictures with fascinating tints and letting people share easily, a level of engagement Facebook covets dearly. Pinterest is taking off like a rocket with repinned pictures, again with heavy sharing, and major brands now have Pinterest sites.

Visual is now the battleground for people’s minds. Mobile is how a brand gets in there. Ergo, mobile graphics matter.

In the next few posts, I’ll take a look at some of the leading SoC architectures and what phones/tablets they’re inside, and see if there really are differences beyond just benchmarksmanship.

Don Dingee
Chief Story Officer


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