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Brits Snap Up Mips To Bag Bits For System On Chips

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Imagination Technologies, the FTSE 250 company formerly known as VideoLogic that licenses architectures for graphics processing units (GPU), has agreed a deal to buy the operating assets of MIPS, a US company which designs central processing units (CPU) used in devices like Blu-ray players, games consoles and network routers. The deal, which includes 82 patents and is worth $60m (about £38m), is an attempt to allow Imagination to compete more ef­fectively with ARM, the Cambridge-based company that licences its chip designs to Apple, Microsoft and others.

The iPad 4’s Retina graphics are driven by Imagination’s PowerVR technology

The iPad 4’s Retina graphics are driven by Imagination’s PowerVR technology

Imagination spokesman David Harold told MacUser: ‘Imagination has been steadily developing its CPU capabilities for a number years using its Meta processor, and sees an excellent fit for the MIPS architecture and customer base with our plans for developing its position in the mainstream CPU market in the years ahead.’ Harold explained that the deal ‘opens new markets for Imagination, such as networking, where MIPS is very well established, as well as TV/STB, which has historically been strong for MIPS and which is a rapidly growing market for Imagination.’

Imagination licenses the architecture for its PowerVR GPU to Apple and Sony, among others. Apple uses ARM’s CPU de­signs alongside the PowerVR in the system-on-a-chip architectures in the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, while Sony uses ARM’s Cortex architecture with the PowerVR in its PlayStation Vita. The heating up of com­petition between Imagination and ARM is a sign of how significant this area has become.

PlayStation Vita

PlayStation Vita

In a separate deal, ARM and its partners agreed to buy 580 MIPS patents for $350m (about £220m). According to CEO Warren East, that deal should ‘neutralise any poten­tial infringement risk from these patents in the further development of advanced embedded technology.’ Imagination has a royalty-free perpetual licence for the patents.

While Imagination is moving into CPU architecture, ARM is moving into the design of GPUs. Google’s Samsung-built Nexus 7 tablet uses ARM’s Mali GPU design. With the move towards system-on-a-chip solutions by device makers, sourcing GPU and CPU from a single designer becomes more attractive.

Apple’s use of system-on-a-chip is currently limited to its mobile devices, but a recent report by Bloomberg suggested that it may be considering using them in Macs too. According to Bloomberg, ‘Apple is exploring ways to replace Intel processors in its Mac personal computers with a version of the chip technology it uses in the iPhone and iPad.’

The report, based on conversations with three people who Bloomberg said had ‘knowledge of the work’ Apple was doing to prepare for a possible move away from Intel, said: ‘While Apple is now committed to Intel in computers and is unlikely to switch in the next few years, some engineers say a shift to its own designs is inevitable as the features of mobile devices and PCs become more similar.’

According to Bloomberg, ‘Apple is exploring ways to replace Intel processors in its Mac personal computers with a version of the chip technology it uses in the iPhone and iPad.’

According to Bloomberg, ‘Apple is exploring ways to replace Intel processors in its Mac personal computers with a version of the chip technology it uses in the iPhone and iPad.’

That story followed another report by the same publication in October which said a move away from Intel ‘would allow Apple to further distinguish its laptops and desktops from those of competitors that run Intel’s chips and Microsoft’s Windows software.’ But it would also mean an end to Boot Camp, which allows Macs to run Windows natively, and make virtualisation software such as Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion much more difficult and inefficient to implement. The move to Intel in 2005 has been partly credited with reviving the fortunes of the Mac, which continues to outperform the rest of the PC market in sales growth.

Apple made the move to Intel in 2005 because the chip maker’s processors were faster and used less power than the PowerPC chips in Macs in previous years. ARM’s CPU architecture is more power-efficient than the Intel x86 chips used in today’s Mac range, but lacks processing capability by comparison. Intel’s advantage may not last long, according to analysts Seeking Alpha: ‘As mobile devices grow in popularity and use, it will be necessary for their functionality to increase and approach current personal computer capabilities, and eventually sur­pass them.’ Today’s iPhone and iPad already outperform the last of the PowerPC Macs.

Nevertheless, any transition is likely to be years away and to start with Macs aimed at portability rather than power. The MacBook Air, if it’s still around, could be an ideal candidate to begin a move towards putting systems-on-a-chip into a Mac.

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