ARM Unleashes Next-Generation Mali Graphics Hardware

ARM has announced its next generation of graphics hardware (codenamed Mali). The new GPUs are meant to highlight a significant improvement in energy efficiency, with ARM claiming that its next-generation GPU architecture will be a whopping 45% more power efficient than previous models. The new GPUs are also meant to address a broad array of market needs, with products scaling from entry level devices to midrange and high-end products.

Note that in the fine print, ARM states that the T860 is designed to be 45% more efficient than the older T628 at the same process node and with the same configuration. The chip can scale up to 16 coherent shader cores with native support for 10bit color, DirectX support up to DX11.1 (no mention of DX12, at least not yet) and OpenGL ES 3.1. We're a little surprised, however, at what the Mali-T860 doesn't offer. There's no mention of DirectX 12 and no mention of OpenCL 2.0. Given that it typically takes ARM 18-24 months to move from paper launch to final product validation, it's a bit surprising that Mali isn't being updated to comprehensively reflect where specs are likely to be by the time shipping hardware is ready for launch.

The budget-oriented core will be the Mali T-820 and Mali-T830, both of which are a fraction the size of the larger chip but pack up to 4 shader cores. No 4K content options are available and for the first time we're seeing a significant split across DirectX support, with these lower-end models only supporting up to DirectX 9.3. ARM notes that support for 10-bit YUV is optional, but I suspect we won't see many budget systems pushing the 10-bit color envelope.

The other major announcement ARM made today was its new Mali-V550 decoder.

This is a significant chip for ARM; it represents the company's first video decoder with an optimized H.265 encode/decode block. H.265 is the replacement codec that will eventually take over H.264's position as the default standard -- it's bandwidth optimized for 4K transmission, and takes up roughly 50% the space as H.264 while delivering a superior overall stream.

There are already multiple SoCs that offer H.265 decode support, but decode capability has come along faster than encode, and it's not surprising to see that later generations of hardware will improve on support that already exists. Both AMD and Nvidia refined their H.264 decode capabilities over several generations and ARM may have taken a similar approach with Mali.

Whether these new products help ARM shake off PowerVR's long, long shadow is anyone's guess. ARM's Mali graphics architecture has a fair chunk of the market, but it tends to dominate in low-visibility products where people aren't necessarily buying with any particular thought to the onboard GPU hardware. PowerVR, Qualcomm's Adreno, and Nvidia are all much better known, and it's unclear if ARM is still gunning for these spaces or tends to retrench into existing markets where it commands a solid presence if not much mind space.