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New chip aims HD video at iPhone
Imagination Tech punts a scorcher
England's Imagination Technology, designer of the PowerVR MBX hardware that powers the iPhone and iPod Touch, has announced its latest and greatest graphics processor IP core, the PowerVR SGX543.
The four-pipeline SGX543 is the first iteration of Imagination's fifth-generation Series5XT architecture and is "available in both single core and multi-processor solutions", according to a statement released by the company.
Imagination has attracted attention recently as much for its investors as for its chip designs. In mid-December of last year, Apple purchased a 3.6 per cent stake in the company - 8.2 million shares - for a cool $4.8m. A week later, Intel added 934,422 shares to the to the 6 million they acquired in October of 2006.
Apple's investment was widely seen as an indication that a member of Imagination's PowerVR SGX line would some day replace the PowerVR MBX technology in the iPhone and iPod touch - or, possibly, appear in some other handheld device that Apple engineers might be tinkering with in Cupertino.
If such prognostications are correct, the SGX543 would be a good candidate.
The new chip design improves upon Imagination's Universal Scalable Shader Engine (USSE) that was first incorporated into earlier PowerVR SGX designs. According to the company, the new technology - prosaically dubbed USSE2 - is a "multi-threaded GPU shader processing engine" that's incorporated into each of the design's four pipelines. USSE2 "incorporates a major upgrade of the data path to deliver vastly improved vector processing performance and overall throughput."
Being a universal engine, USSE2 can theoretically achieve higher throughput than can separate polygon and shader engines. Imagination claims that the SGX543 can achieve "real-world" performance of 35 million polygons per second and a pixel fill rate of one gigapixel per second when running at a relatively power-miserly 200MHz.
Performance at this level should be more than burly enough to support fluid HD-quality video and graphics. The technology also provides "advanced colour space handling and gamma correction" to ensure that each of those polygons and pixels are displayed in vivid and accurate color - or colour, depending upon your location.
As with all members of the PowerVR SGX line, the SGX543 supports the OpenGL ES 2.0 standard for programmable 3D graphics.
Speaking of open standards, Imagination is a member of the consortium that recently released the OpenCL 1.0 spec for standardizing APIs for GPGPU, which is acronym-speak for general-purpose computation on graphics-processing units. Simply put, GPGPU is a scheme in which general-purpose applications, especially highly parallel tasks such as media processing, can be offloaded from a device's CPU to its GPU.
The original OpenCL proposal came from Apple, and it's scheduled to be a marquee feature in the company's upcoming Mac OS X 10.6, aka Snow Leopard. Meanwhile, Imagination is busily hiring OpenCL engineers. Seeing as how the iPhone and iPod touch run a streamlined version of Mac OS X, it's a good bet that OpenCL-enabled Imagination-designed chips will find their way into future Apple handhelds.
Unfortunately, Imagination hasn't yet disclosed one important piece of information about the PowerVR SGX543: its TDP or thermal design power, a spec that suggests the maximum amount of power a chip will require at maximum normal load.
Knowing Imagination's target market and the low TDPs of its existing line, we expect the SGX543's TDP will be well within a handheld's capabilities. The company plans to release more information about the SGX543 at the Multicore Expo in March.
When they do, we'll be sure to fill you in. ®