PowerVR Plans To Make Mobile Graphics, GPU Compute a Three-Way Race -- Again

For over 10 years, the desktop and mobile graphics space has been dominated by two players: Nvidia and AMD/ATI. After 3dfx collapsed, there was a brief period of time when it looked as though Imagination Technologies might establish itself as a third option. Ultimately, that didn't happen -- the company's tile-based rendering solution, Kyro, failed to gain much mass-market support and faded after two generations.

Now, there's a flurry of evidence to suggest that Imagination Technologies plans to re-enter PC market, but from the opposite direction. Rather than building expensive discrete solutions, IT is focused on deploying GPUs that can challenge Nvidia and AMD solutions in tablets, mobile phones, and possibly netbooks.

Over the past two weeks, Imagination Technologies has announced new, higher-end versions of its Power VR Series 6 GPU, claiming that the new PowerVR G6230 and G6430 go "'all out', adding incremental extra area for maximum performance whilst minimising power consumption." There's a new ray-tracing SDK out and a post discussing how PowerVR is utilizing GPU Compute and OpenCL to offload and accelerate CPU-centric tasks.

The company has also reaffirmed its partnership with TSMC at the 28nm node and unveiled new video encode/decode hardware. The PowerVR Series4 D4500MP (decode) and E4500MP (encode) are capable of capturing 10-bit color and performing 4:4:4 chroma subsampling (4:2:2 is also available).

"PowerVR D4500MP and E4500MP respectively increase the performance for decode and encode of full HD 1080P video applications, which enables realistic super high definition quality, multi-stream HD channel browsing, high frame rate support for detailed slow motion footage of sports events and other content. The new cores also offer class-leading performance for ultra-HD 4Kx2K video, a core-technology for future video applications."

Individually, these are interesting developments. Taken in aggregate, they demonstrate how serious the company is about competing with the entire spectrum of GPU providers, from Qualcomm and Nvidia in phones, to AMD and Nvidia in tablets. Nvidia and Qualcomm both have their own GPUs to showcase with Windows RT when it launches, but Texas Instruments has committed to using PowerVR for Windows 8. Intel also uses PowerVR for both Medfield (x86 phone) and for upcoming tablets.

Part of what makes this interesting is that PowerVR's tile-based rendering is an excellent fit for mobile/low-power products. Tile-based rendering solutions are inherently more efficient than the immediate-mode rendering solutions used by both AMD and Nvidia. While both companies use a number of strategies to reduce the amount of overdraw in a scene (meaning the number of pixels that are shaded but never displayed), tile-based renderers don't suffer from overdraw at all. In power-constrained environments where companies are struggling to trim every watt, PowerVR may have an advantage it didn't possess ten years ago.

Certainly Imagination Technologies thinks it may, and the battle for graphics space in the next few years should be very interesting to watch.