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MIPS looks to challenge ARM's tablet dominance with smaller CPU

MIPS Technologies says its proAptiv CPU will be half the size of ARM's Cortex A-15 but will equal it on performance

MIPS Technologies hopes to challenge ARM in the market for high-end tablets and smartphones with an upcoming processor design it presented at the Hot Chips conference in Silicon Valley on Tuesday.

MIPS is known for chips used in home entertainment products such as digital TVs and Blu-ray disc players, but its processor designs are also used in a few tablets, including one made by Philips. They are mostly lower-end Android devices sold in emerging markets like China and Indonesia.

It hopes to move up the food chain with a new processor design called proAptiv, an implementation of its MIPS32 architecture.

MIPS says its proAptiv core will be half the size of ARM's upcoming Cortex-A15 CPU but offer equivalent or greater performance. That could help manufacturers to build smartphones and tablets that compete better with Apple's iPhone and iPad, something they have so far struggled to do.

"It's pretty much a direct competitor for the Cortex-A15," said Mark Throndson, product marketing director at MIPS, on the sidelines of the Hot Chips conference.

The new design is still a way from finding its way into a finished product, however, and it remains to be seen if MIPS can challenge ARM, whose chips dominate the smartphone and tablet markets.

Like ARM, MIPS doesn't manufacture chips itself; it licenses its designs to other companies. The completed design for the proAptiv, known as the "production RTL," will be available to licensees this quarter, or by the end of September, Throndson said.

It takes a chip maker about 18 months to turn a CPU design into a finished system-on-chip, so he doesn't expect the first smartphones and tablets with proAptiv inside to go on sale for about two years.

That's a long time to wait, but there are some encouraging early signs. MIPS has published a performance score for proAptiv based on the CoreMark benchmark that Microprocessor Report, an industry publication, said was a single-core record for licensable CPUs.

"MIPS faces a number of business challenges before it can seize the high ground in mobile markets, but the technical features of its Aptiv product family should make the market for licensable CPU cores much more competitive," wrote Scott Gardner, senior editor for Microprocessor Report.

He also noted that it "remains to be seen if real application performance will match up to the high CoreMark score." Still, since Intel has failed to make a significant dent in ARM's business, it won't hurt consumers to have another competitor to keep ARM on its toes.

The proAptiv's smaller die size will help cut silicon costs for manufacturers and lessen power consumption, Throndson said. And MIPS expects to charge manufacturers a lower license fees than ARM, he said.

ARM responded by noting that it launched the Cortex-A15 in 2010 and that SOCs (systems-on-chip) have already sampled with customers. It estimates that the Cortex A-15 processor will be "approximately the same size" as the MIPS proActiv "for the same like-for-like configuration," Noel Hurley, vice president marketing and strategy for ARM's processor division, said via email.

"Within that configuration the Cortex-A15 includes Trustzone and Virtualisation technology not found in the MIPS architecture. In addition to the core technology, the Cortex-A15 processor has a NEON Media Processing Engine," Hurley said. Efficient media processing is a necessary requirement for most mobile applications, he added.

It takes more than good technology to challenge ARM's dominance in mobile devices, said Chris Rowen, founder and CTO of Tensilica, which designs and licenses dataplane processor cores and who saw the MIPS presentation at Hot Chips Tuesday.

ARM has numerous factors on its side, he noted, including a big ecosystem of customers and partners, and software developers who are familiar with its architecture and its tools.

"Building a high quality architecture -- and there's every reason to think proAptiv fits that category -- gives them a shot," Rowen said. "But it's also the case they have to play the game around ARM's rules, and that's tough."


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