Imagination Technologies hopes to breathe new life into MIPS

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Imagination Technologies is moving forward with the development of the MIPS CPU architecture, trying to dispel concerns about the processor’s future after acquiring struggling MIPS Technologies late last year for a heavily discounted price.

Imagination, widely known for its powerful PowerVR graphics core in Apple’s mobile devices and Intel’s tablet chips, is making assets acquired from MIPS Technologies the basis of its future CPU development, said Tony King-Smith, executive vice president of marketing at Imagination.

“We are calling all our processor families MIPS,” King-Smith said.

Android tablets based on current MIPS Technologies CPU designs

Imagination bought MIPS for $60 million in November last year in what was considered a shrewd move, acquiring 82 patents and 160 employees in the deal. Separately, MIPS sold 498 patents to a consortium of chipmakers including ARM for $350 million. MIPS was on the block for months, but failed to find buyers until Imagination stepped in.

With the acquisition, the graphics-oriented Imagination Technologies has now unexpectedly become the third major CPU architecture provider for smartphones, tablets and embedded products behind ARM and x86 companies Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. MIPS processors are used in a few inexpensive Android tablets, some of which are priced under $100 in developing countries, but it has a large presence in the embedded market.

Imagination acquired MIPS because of the valuable intellectual property and talent, King-Smith said. Now the company has a large team of chip developers working on CPUs and graphics processors. But graphics continues to remain a core part of Imagination’s business, and Apple and Intel also have minor stakes in Imagination.

Future CPUs from MIPS like the upcoming Aptiv processors will be part of Imagination’s offerings, King-Smith said. Imagination already offers an application processor called Meta, but the fate of that CPU will be announced in the future, King-Smith said.

The Aptiv processor will be used in smartphones, tablets and embedded products. However, Imagination executives did not comment on when mobile devices with the new chip based on the processor design would become available.

“We won’t be sitting idle,” King-Smith said.

Imagination designs CPUs and licenses them, much like ARM. The chip designer will be showing networking and communications gear based on the current MIPS processors at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week. The company also will showcase the next-generation PowerVR Series 6 graphics core, with a specific focus on mobile devices.

The existing MIPS processor designs have multiple strengths including multithreading capabilities, King-Smith said. Analysts have given positive reviews to MIPS’ Aptiv core with its 64-bit, threading and low-power consumption capabilities.

Software development also continues on Google’s Android OS for the Aptiv processor, King-Smith said.

The company would not comment on whether Windows RT would be compatible with MIPS processors in the future. However, the dialog between the companies continues, said David Harold, an Imagination spokesman. Imagine works closely with Microsoft on graphics technologies such as DirectX for the PowerVR graphics core.

Despite the acquisition of a major CPU provider, Imagination also said its PowerVR graphics core will continue to work across a variety of CPU architectures including ARM, MIPS, x86 and PowerPC. The cross-platform support has been key to the success of PowerVR, King-Smith said.

Imagination’s immediate goal is to reassure customers that future MIPS processors are under development, King-Smith said. MIPS has a small mobile presence, but it has been losing market share to Intel and ARM in its mainstay embedded market. Traditionally, MIPS designs have also done well in products like TVs, set-top boxes, networking gear and other products.

“We’re doing everything we can to remedy that,” King-Smith said.

It will be interesting to see how Imagination does with MIPS and its graphics cores, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“There are significant benefits to developing the CPU and GPU cores together like what ARM is attempting, but Imagination does not see it that way. They believe that both should be developed completely independently,” McGregor said.

This will make both the CPU and GPU cores more portable and compatible with other products, which is a positive for Imagination since the majority of the company’s revenues are tied to the ARM architecture. As an example, Apple combines ARM processors with PowerVR graphics cores on its chips for mobile devices.

Imagination may be looking for a way to convert some of its graphics customers over to MIPS architecture, McGregor said.

“While I think it is possible because every chip vendor is always looking to differentiate, it will not be quick or easy to convert someone from what has become the richest processor ecosystem” of ARM, McGregor said.

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