System-on-Chips, or SoCs, are based around two core components – the central processor unit and the graphics processor unit, or CPU and GPU for short. In addition to these core components, System-on-Chips often contain other components such as basebands (cellular data modems), Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios, plus location sensors and radios including GPS and GLONASS. Samsung, in particular, have been working on releasing a new family of SoCs called the "Bioprocessor," which will include health monitoring sensor suites as standard in an attempt to reduce the power consumption, design and manufacturing complexity of wearable devices, or those that are being built for tomorrow's supermassive "Internet of Things" network. However, we have heard relatively little about chipsets being designed for the new generation of tiny devices.
ARM Holdings is the blueprint holder for many of today's CPU and GPU cores – but not all. ARM license the technology to chipset designers and manufacturers so that they may build their own System-on-Chips based around ARM's reference designs. ARM also license their designs for third parties to modify the chipset, such as Qualcomm, who traditionally have built a custom core chipset. We've seen ARM introduce the Cortex-A35 application core, a new generation, 64-bit, ultra low power application core designed to either be the "LITTLE" side of a big.LITTLE application processor, or perhaps used for wearables and entry level smartphones and tablets. Today, we're bringing you the news that ARM have released details about their new Mali GPU chipset designed for wearables, the Mali-470 GPU.
The new Mali-470 is the latest in the Mali-400 line of GPUs and it's based around OpenGL ES 2.0, a graphical standard. Manufacturers around the world have successfully used the Mali-400 series and it's seen service in over a billion devices. The newer generation 470s main advantage over the older Mali-400 is considerably reduced power consumption: the newer GPU uses approximately half the power of the old, and by extension, generates half of the heat, too. This reduced power efficiency comes with no reduction in performance and is because ARM have changed how the Vertex and Fragment processors work in the device. The Mali-470 is capable of supporting higher resolution screens, up from 640 by 640 pixel resolution to 1080p (or 1,080 by 1,920 pixels) should this be necessary. The source document contains further details about the GPU architectural improvements designed to reduce power consumption and improve performance where necessary. ARM envisage the new Mali-470 being suitable for wearable devices, smart thermostats, printer control units, industrial control panels; anywhere that a specialist user interface needs to be used.
At this point, some readers might be wondering why we need higher performance graphical engines inside our smartwatches? It isn't as though we will run through a few missions in XCOM, or run a race of three in Need for Speed? No, not yet anyway, however the more efficiently the device can render the user interface, the smoother the experience for the customer. Another important side effect is that the easier it is for developers and operating system designers to program the user interface, the easier it will be. Reliance on the CPU rather than a dedicated GPU means using a less efficient component. In short, ensuring our wearable SoCs contain a low power GPU will keep devices running quickly and smoothly. Wearable technology is still very much a new technology and the interfaces of these devices and products is still being refined. This is a quaint way of saying that they're not quite there yet!
OpenGL ES 2.0 support is built into Android, Android Wear and Tizen OS at least, making it a standard that manufacturers would expect a chipset to support. Whilst it isn't the most modern version of OpenGL, ARM believes that OpenGL ES 2.0 contains all the features and the necessary power efficiency for current and anticipated wearable and IoT devices. The Mali-470 is compatible with the Mali-400 chipset so developers do not need to redesign their applications or user interfaces, should the manufacturer switch the underlying chipset. As for when we'll start seeing the Mali-470 GPU appearing – ARM expect the first devices will start shipping in a little over a year, which means 2016's crop of wearable devices will not benefit from the new technology.