ARM's New Mali-T760 and T720 GPUs Claim Big Speed and Efficiency Gains

For the past few years, ARM has been steadily chipping away at rival PowerVR's domination of the Android and tablet GPU space. While Imagination Technologies dominated the early days of the industry, we've seen a number of competitors emerge since, thanks to aggressive products from Nvidia at the high end and companies like Vivante in the lower-end and midrange spaces. With Mali, ARM is trying to offer a comprehensive solution that can span the entire market, from budget products aimed at Eastern nations to high-end hardware suitable for a next-generation smartphone or tablet.

Today, ARM is announcing two new GPU core products -- the Mali-T760 and the Mali-T720. The T760 is the upper-end part, that's aimed at more powerful devices, while the T720 is meant for smaller phones, cheaper products, and systems that require a decent GPU, but don't have the power budget or price point to pack in a high-end part.

The small GPUs in the middle are the Mali-T628, Mali-T622, and Mali-450. The T720 replaces the 450/T622, while the 760 replaces the T628. In addition to features like OpenGL ES 3.0, which ARM is bringing to the midrange for the first time, the Mali-T760 and T720 will continue the company's focus on efficiency and bandwidth savings over throwing raw power at a problem.

According to ARM, a significant part of why the Mali-T760 is able to achieve high performance on minimal bandwidth is that it can compress the frame buffer data for cross-SoC transmission. It ignores repetitive tile data, updates only the portions of the screen that actually need updating, and then outputs the proper image. The end result is (apparently) indistinguishable to the end user, but power consumption is much reduced.

The Mali-T760 can use up to 16 cores with two banks of L2 (512K cache each) and a clock speed of 600MHz for 9.6GPixels/s of fill rate and 326.4 GFLOPS worth of performance. The T720 is an eight-core chip with a significantly smaller L2 cache (2x128K), but the same clock speed. Pixel fill rate is halved (4.8GB/s) and floating point performance is sharply reduced, down to 81GFLOPS. ARM foresees the T760 as a companion core for Cortex-A15 and A57 SoCs, while the T720 is designed to meet the needs of Cortex-A7, A12, and the upcoming 64-bit A53.

Whether the Mali series is good enough to break the PowerVR / Qualcomm duopoly is another question altogether. As of mid-2013, the figures broke down like this:

Image and data credit: John Peddie Research

Of the "Other" section, about 18.4% of the market is ARM-based, which is a huge leap up for the company over 2012. At the same time, however, Imagination Technologies still commands a sizeable market, edging out Qualcomm's Snapdragon family. Vivante has made strong inroads of late, leaping up the charts compared to 2012, and Nvidia has fallen back sharply as sales of Tegra 3 fell off a cliff and Tegra 4 was delayed through the end of this year. The Surface 2's recent launch may or may not help offset this.

ARM has positioned itself for strong growth in the GPU market, but may find itself stymied for high-end design wins. On the one hand, companies like Apple have invested a great deal in PowerVR solutions. On the other, you've got Qualcomm, with its integrated 28nm LTE modem (still the only one on the market) and Adreno solutions baked right into the Snapdragon family. It's going to be hard for ARM to find much high-end traction against either company, though Samsung may come through again with high-end Exynos parts that utilize these new chips.