Apple's 20x faster future iPhone 5, iPad 3 graphics promise

By Jonny Evans

Imagine you were the company which invented the PC, revolutionized the smartphone and created the tablet industry. What would you do to hurt your imitative competitors? According to AppleInsider, Apple [AAPL] has a nuclear option: producing mobile devices 20 times more powerful than any it has made before.


It's a fact

For once, this news isn't driven by the usual bouncing rubber-clad but insubstantial Digitimes speculation: It comes directly from Imagination Technologies, who announced its next-gen PowerVR Series6 GPU core family earlier this week. These processors could wend their way inside Apple's devices, delivering performance up to 20 times more than the current generation.

This fits well with the trajectory of Apple's Post-PC plan -- the performance difference between a mobile device and a plain old PC will continue to evaporate.

Think about the money in mobile and then consider the opportunity this represents for chip architecture developers. There's more mobile devices sold than PCs now, so the money is in chips for these things. This means we can expect faster, better performing chips in future.


[ABOVE: Stop and think about it and Apple has been the most succesful of all the firms designing the Internet into its products since the launch of the iMac in 1998.]

Old PCs are dying

This also means the gap between applications on mobile devices and on PCs will continue to shrink.

That suggests the analysts at IDC and Gartner will soon be forced to follow the lead of Canalys, and begin to count tablet sales as PCs. (In future, even smartphone sales may be counted as these as the performance difference evaporates.) And for those apps and projects which don't translate onto devices, there's always cloud-based and SAAS apps to save the day.

The PowerVR G6200 and G6400 GPU IP cores are the first in the Power VR Series6 GPU family from Imagination Technologies. Apple already uses graphics processors from that company inside its iPad, iPhone, iPod touch and Apple TV.

Apple's current A5 processor has an 800MHz GPU inside, 73 percent faster than the A4's GPU, AppleInsider informs. And while Imagination never names Apple among it's clients, various product tear-downs and Apple's ownership of a stake in the firm confirm the link.

The future looks bright

"Based on our experience in shipping hundreds of millions of GPU cores, plus extensive market and customer feedback, we have been able to set a new standard in GPU architecture, particularly in the areas of power, bandwidth and efficiency -- the key metrics by which GPUs are now judged," Imagination Chief Executive Hossein Yassaie said in a statement.

"We are confident that with the Rogue architecture we have a very clear technology advantage and an exceptional roadmap for the PowerVR Series6 family which our partners can depend on."

What's in an app?

Based on Imagination's new PowerVR Rogue architecture, we can expect a renaissance for app development on iOS. This is because we'll be looking at stunning graphics performance on very limited power draw.

This fits in with my estimated future road map for Apple's products: one day you'll use a similar user interface on both Apple's Macs and its mobile devices, and you'll be able to run similar apps on both platforms. For some uses a PC will be essential (servers, data centers, heavy-duty image or video transitions.

Like trucks (and where have we heard this before?), the PCs will be your faithful servants for heavy haulage, while your mobile devices will be your PCs. This is the direction of this evolution, and even Microsoft can only stand, King Canute-like, attempting to will back the direction of this tide.

Imagination puts it thus, saying its new architecture: "Enables Imagination's partners to deliver amazing user experiences in devices from innovative 'natural' user interfaces to ultra-realistic gaming, as well as enabling new applications never before thought of from advanced content creation and image processing to sophisticated augmented reality and environment-aware solutions."

The kick inside

The first PowerVR Series6 cores, the G6200 and G6400, have two and four compute clusters respectively. "Delivering the best performance in both GFLOPS/mm2 and GFLOPS/mW, PowerVR Series6 GPUs can deliver 20x or more of the performance of current generation GPU cores targeting comparable markets. This is enabled by an architecture that is around 5x more efficient than previous generations."

New features will include:

-- An advanced scalable compute cluster architecture;

-- High efficiency compression technology including lossless image and parameter compression;

-- PVRTC texture compression;

-- An enhanced scheduling architecture;

-- Dedicated housekeeping processors;

-- A Tile Based Deferred Rendering architecture.

These new features will likely drive new implementations and tools within Apple's iOS, meaning developers will be able to explore hitherto unknown horizons for mobile app development. And, with iOS apps soon set to run on mobile devices, the iPad tablet and the Apple television, the opportunity for the company's oh-so-active army of independent developers is huge. Opportunity plus a well-established platform base equates to big revenues. No one else has this at this time.


Thinking machines

Imagination also predicts huge changes in three markets:

-- It believes GPUs will become vastly more powerful, "GPUs will increasingly be complemented by highly optimized VPUs (video processing units) to deliver multiple streams of multi-standard HD video within a graphics-rich application environment, taking the user experience to another level of sophistication, quality and ease of use," the company says.

-- Those 3G and 4G radios in devices will be hosted on-chip, driving down costs and boosting performance/battery life.

-- The age of connected Internet products is also upon us, so expect, "billions of new connected products across every category of consumer entertainment and productivity product, as well as an emerging array of broader products from consumer healthcare equipment to home automation systems."

Apple's decision to acquire the chip expertise available at Anobit makes all the more sense as you begin to consider the potential performance of future mobile gadgets.

Unpredictable plans?

Returning to Apple's devices, all you need to do is fast forward to later this year and the Apple's iPad 3 could include Imagination's new GPU. However, given the estimated March release date for the iPad 3 and the fact that Imagination only this week announced its new solution it makes sense for shipping devices to appear later. Could this be the foundation for those iPad 3 in Q4 claims?

Apple has a nuclear option.

Should it choose to combine Imagination's new processor with its self-created A6 chip, then it could deliver new classes of ultra-powerful products which will simply cream the competition. After all, not only has Apple got the incredibly well-pleased base of existing users, many of which are already prepared to upgrade, but it also has an army of developers and an app market that's second to none.

With the CES focus on television and on ultrabooks this year, Apple could easily be in position to introduce new mobile devices which drive a television using an Apple TV, and which compete directly with ultrabooks on size, weight, power and battery life.

Platform wars

And that's even before the company reclaims the "world's thinnest notebook" prize when it upgrades its MacBook Air range soon. Together, all these moves will likely give rise to another spate of speculation Apple may abandon Intel for its MacBook Air laptop in favor of its self-designed processors at some future point. Presumably subsequent to the company further combining iOS with OS X.

Apple's seem set to win this platform war. Its competitors must prepare for the long haul, and must attempt to think as Apple had to back in 1997, when complacency and incompetence almost killed the firm, but innovation, focus and simplicity saved the day.

Apple today is the consumer electronics industry equivalent of a Harley Davidson. (Though Samsung, with its customary originality and flair, has also become an Imagination GPU licensee). With these new graphics chips combined with its own in-house chip expertise, Apple's mobile devices seem set to speed even further ahead down the CE highway. Are you aboard?

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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