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Apple's bionic ARM to muscle advanced gaming graphics into iPhones

The next generation of iPhone appears set to claim exclusive access to advanced graphics core and video decoding technology, thanks to a secret licensing deal between Apple, mobile graphics leader Imagination Technologies, and Samsung, the iPhone's ARM "system on a chip" manufacturer. The result may be an ideal platform for handheld gaming and high definition video playback.

Imagination's New 3D SGX Core

The current iPhone model and most other mobile devices use a version of the PowerVR MBX graphics processor core developed by Imagination. Mobile processor manufacturers such as Intel, Marvell, Samsung, and Texas Instruments have licensed this core and include it on their SoC or "system on a chip" designs, which pack multiple processing cores, memory, and interface components into a single, tightly integrated package.

The PowerVR MBX graphics core used in Apple's iPhone, the Nokia N95, and other popular phones supports the features of OpenGL ES 1.1. Many mobile chip manufactures have a design license to modify and develop their own SoC parts, which include Imagination's MBX graphics core.

Imagination's next generation graphics core, the PowerVR SGX, introduces OpenGL ES 2.0 support, along with a Universal Scalable Shader Engine that provides mobile devices with highly efficient, shader-based 3D graphics. SGX is not only backwards compatible with code developed for MBX, but also actually runs it with better performance and efficiency.

HD Video with the PowerVR VXD Core

Imagination has also developed VXD decoder codec components capable of playing back high definition video from a mobile device either directly or output to an external display.

The VXD core specializes in highly power efficient decoding, making it possible to handle HD video content with comparable power consumption to existing audio playback chips.

Imagination licenses both its VXD codec cores and the new SGX graphics processor core designs to chip manufacturers, but access to the latest generation of its intellectual property has been negotiated in a new way.

Samsung's Manufacturing License for SGX and VXD

In a press release issued earlier today, Imagination announced signed a licence agreement with Samsung "with respect to certain POWERVR SGX graphics and VXD video IP cores."

The release noted that the license "enables Samsung to manufacture semiconductor devices which integrate these IP cores from Imagination." According to a source familiar with the agreement, this deal is unique in that it is only a manfacturing licence, and is the first time Imagination has issued one on such terms.

The source reports that Samsung does not have a license to design chips that include the cores, only to produce them. This is different from previous licensing agreements related to the MBX graphics core, for which Samsung does have a design license.

The Mysterious Licensee

Last July, Imagination announced a deal to license its "next generation graphics and video IP cores to an international electronics systems company under a multi-use licensing agreement." The electronics system company was not named.

The release stated that "the SoCs to be developed under this license agreement will be produced for this new partner by Imagination’s existing semiconductor partners and/or new chip manufacturing partners."

The fact that this "electronics system company" was both a "new partner" and not itself a chip manufacturer strongly suggests that the international electronics mystery company was in fact, Apple, Inc., which stands among very few other companies as new to mobile graphics core licensing yet dependent upon third party manufacturers who are already Imagination partners.

Combined with knowledge that Samsung is now licensing the next generation SGX and VXD designs for manufacturing, this indicates that Apple has secured unique Imagination technology for its own exclusive use, and is using Samsung to manufacture the new SoC parts for future models.

On page 2 of 2: PA Semi Brings Custom SoC Expertise In House; Graphics are for Gaming.

PA Semi Brings Custom SoC Expertise In House

This also helps explain why Apple recently acquired a fabless chip design company. As a recent article indicated, Apple wanted to expand its in house chip design expertise. The company is taking on its own mobile processor designs that incorporate the latest graphics technology and pairing these with the most appropriate processor cores.

As illustrated in the past, that currently means the use of processors based on the ARM architecture. But the door is open for Apple to incorporate future versions of Intel's Atom line of mobile processors, which also incorporate Imagination's PowerVR graphics cores.

By licensing Imagination's graphics technology directly, Apple can keep itself flexible to adopt any mobile processor architecture while retaining a competitive edge in graphics performance. The processor agnostic design of OS X allows Apple to outmaneuver existing mobile operating systems, which are often closely tied to specific hardware.

Custom chip development is nothing new at Apple. By gaining access to exclusive new generations of mobile graphics technology, Apple can differentiate its products from other smartphones and mobile Internet devices with an edge in performance while offering full support for industry standard OpenGL ES graphics.

Graphics are for Gaming

Apple's push to build a consumer friendly App Store to deliver mobile applications on demand, combined with the reality that games are a top draw in mobile software products and Apple's recent moves in acquiring custom chip development expertise add up to a new gaming strategy.

Interestingly, the iPhone and iPod touch already exceed the performance of existing handheld gaming devices such as the Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation Portable.

A flight simulator game demonstrated at Apple's March iPhone roadmap event.

Of the half dozen new iPhone applications Apple demonstrated at its SDK unveiling, half were video games. Artificial Life, Aspyr, Electronic Arts, Feral Interactive, Freeverse, Gameloft, id Software, Pangea, THQ, and Namco Bandai have all confirmed an intent to deliver games for the platform, with Gameloft announcing plans for fifteen titles by the end of the year.

By commoditizing mobile video gaming into the powerhouse that is iTunes, Apple can team its new smartphone and WiFi mobile platform business with the high volume software sales related to gaming. Apple quietly began developing its downloadable gaming business for the iPod in 2005, and earlier this year released a signed software platform for the iPhone and iPod touch that follows the business models of existing video game consoles developed by Nintendo and duplicated by Sony and Microsoft.