As with a lot of industries, there's a big player behind the scenes in today's mobile industry, enabling the likes of Qualcomm and Samsung to produce the processors that keep your smartphones ticking. ARM, the UK firm that designs the Cortex-A line of processors that the Snapdragon 810 and Exynos 7420 are ultimately derived from also designs a GPU blueprint, the Mali series. The Mali line of GPUs, the part of the overall processor package that focuses on just graphics, has become incredibly successful, with 114 licenses now issued to manufacturers all over the world. With the new Mali-470, ARM hope to deliver rich, 3D experiences to both wearables and embedded solutions (such as Internet of Things appliances) without the associated power drain. I recently got the chance to talk to the folk at ARM and to learn more about what this new silicon will all be about.
First of all, this sort of thing won't end up in new hardware, smartwatch or otherwise, until early 2017 or so. Samples will be issued to licensees during 2016 however. The Mali-470 will bring rich OpenGL ES 2.0 experiences to small displays, like that of a smartwatch or small IoT appliance, but with half the power consumption of a Mali-400 GPU. We were told that ARM's engineers were tasked with of focusing on reducing power consumption at all cost, while also sticking with OpenGL ES 2.0. This version of OpenGL is not focused for games or heavy 3D lifting, but more for interactive and fluid user interfaces, like that found on your Android Wear smartwatch. Speaking of which, OpenGL ES 2.0 is supported by both Android Wear as well as Tizen, the OS Samsung uses in their new Gear S2 smartwatch.
On the face of it, the Mali-470 doesn't sound exciting at all, but really it could be become a very important piece of the wearables puzzle. Devices like the G Watch R and Huawei Watch run a Snapdragon 400 CPU package, and a custom GPU from Qualcomm, neither of which were designed or developed with these low-power applications in mind. The Mali-470 however will pair nicely with low-power Cortex-A7 or Cortex-A53 (among other compatible packages) processors and offer a quality experience without sacrificing on battery life. Moreover, the Mali-470 is compatible with anything written for the Mali-400 line of GPUs, making it even easier for manufacturers to create devices with this new GPU in it.
Considering that the Mali-470 won't be available in devices for another couple of years or so, I asked what we could expect of wearables by then. Not only was longer battery life a forgone conclusion, but higher-resolution smartwatches was an answer that I didn't quite expect. Devices like the Huawei Watch are already very high-resolution, but with a new GPU that consumes less power, there's more work that can be done on the display. While it's hard to get excited about something that's a couple of years away, it's good to know that the company responsible for mobile processors is looking ahead to improve wearable technology as a whole.