CES 2009: iPhone may get GPGPU acceleration

Las Vegas (NV) – Imagination Technologies will announce a new version of its graphics chip IP tomorrow. The PowerVR SGX543 is the firm’s first multi-core capable GPU technology which scales to, in theory, an unlimited number of cores and offer support for GPGPU acceleration. While Imagination’s technology is known to be integrated in graphics products from Intel and Texas Instruments in the past, this new version is especially interesting since Apple could have access to it and may be planning a powerful graphics engine with GPGPU acceleration for one of the next iPhones. Conceivably, the next iPhone could become a much more capable gaming platform than the Nintendo DS or PSP.

There has been quite some speculation about Apple’s future processor and chipset plans for upcoming iPhone generations, especially since we know that Apple has licensed Imagination’s GPU technology blueprints and even invested in the company. When we heard that Imagination would be at CES, we were curious whether there was more in this story and if there are more details what technologies Apple may have licensed. Of course, we know that Apple keeps its customers and suppliers on a tight leash and it was not surprising that Imagination’s representatives were tight-lipped about the Apple relationship and in fact declined to comment on any products Apple will have access to.

But we know that Imagination’s licensing policy does not allow customers to modify the architecture of the company’s designs. (Also, Apple’s investment does not provide the company with more access to Imagination technology. We were told that Apple’s investment has purely financial reasons.) If we assume that Apple will take advantage of its product license, then common sense would suggest that Apple would at least use the firm’s most current PowerVR SGX design (which is also used by Intel in the GMA500 chipset) or, more likely, Imagination’s next-generation product design. If you have read my previous articles covering the iPhone, then you know that I am very critical about the iPhone in general and its capability as a phone in particular. However, if Imagination’s claim about the new design’s capabilities can be carried over into an actual physical product and if Apple is in fact using the design, then I am convinced that the next iPhones will leapfrog the current phone in processing power and feature set. The hardware will enable the company to create entirely new applications as well as features you are used to from your PC, but are not available on your cellphone – such as printing or scanning/faxing.

Imagination did not reveal many details about its new design, the PowerVR SGX543 (5 for series, 4 for performance and 3 to indicate that it is part of the Power VR Extended product line), in terms of numbers since clock speed, resulting performance or power consumption largely depend on the specs a hardware designer chooses. But we were told that the shader performance has been increased by about 40% and that the GPU delivers about 2.5x the image processing performance of an ARM Cortex-8 CPU and outperforms the a 600 MHz ARM chip in some traditional CPU benchmarks with a 100 MHz design. Power consumption is also down, but company representatives indicated that “a huge leap has not been made”.

The new 543 isn’t about power consumption; it is about performance and features. It is multi-core capable – 543 chips can run in parallel – with power consumption and space constraints being the main limitations for the number of cores – and can translate into very capable hardware for devices such as netbooks, MIDs, set top boxes and mobile phones. According to Imagination, one core delivers a performance of 35 million polygons per second and a fill rate of 1 Gigapixel per second at 200 MHz.

While Imagination declined to comment on speculation whether this may be hardware Apple is currently working with, it seems to be a conclusive thought that the chip may end up in a future iPhone or iPod. The iPhone 3G uses a “light” PowerVR MBX design, the predecessor of the current PowerVR SGX, and represents the least capable graphics engine Imagination offers for licensing at this time. The 543 could lift the iPhone into a whole new gaming category, but graphics capability may not be the most interesting feature of this chip: It supports GPGPU acceleration via OpenCL as well.

Imagination confirmed that there are several research projects going on now, trying to come up with applications that exploit the hidden horsepower in the graphics chip to run existing applications faster or enable entirely new applications. In the end, Imagination believes, the CPU may only be the coordinator of application processes, while the GPU will be doing more and more work the CPU has done in the past.    

The company said that potential GPGPU applications could include print capability (if you think about it, there is no print feature in current smartphones, due to the fact that there is no print processor) as well as much more advanced features such as the ability to scan and fax a document – or parking assistants in automotive applications.

I have said it before and I said it again: GPGPU acceleration may turn into the most significant hardware and software advances in decades and to see that technology emerge on the cellphone as well is exciting. However, Imagination has just begun to license the 543 design, which means that it will take about 18 months for phones that are equipped with the chip to become available for sale. The next iPhone may not get this chip, but rely on the current SGX version (which is a significant step up from the MBX chip.) But two generations out, the 543 could be a stunning platform and the iPhone may run applications you can only run on your PC today.