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MIPS wants a slice of handset market

Posted: 09 Oct 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:processor? MIPS ARM rivalry? handset market? Android?

MIPS Technologies Inc. is going after the cellphone market, which is currently dominated by ARM. Many industry observers scoff at MIPS as a viable competitor for future mobile phone designs, but the company insists that they're all wrong.

Art Swift, VP of marketing at MIPS, told EE Times that MIPS-based handsets will be shipped over the next several years. He noted that MIPS now sees its licensees making actual progress.

The company's strategy of riding the Android wave is well known. Google initially created Android as open source software platform for smart phones using ARM processors. But MIPS also saw an opening since OEMs already using MIPS cores are interested in adopting the code for a broad range of systems, including netbooks, e-books, digital picture frames and medical devices.

Swift isn't just talking about Android-based digital photo frames, personal media players (PMPs), personal navigation devices (PNDs), Blu-ray players, netbooks or mobile Internet deviceswhere MIPS cores are already used or are more likely to reside.

He is also talking about MIPS design wins in cellphones. That's news to many in the industry.

Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts, said, "The only low-power MIPS implementation of which I am aware is the RMI version of the AMD Alchemy low-power MIPS architecture that was sold to then-Raza in 2006."

Strauss said "RMI processors are in Samsung digital picture frames, products which certainly could lend themselves to Android implementations, and I've seen Android prototypes of picture frames by another company." Android could be useful in PMPs, he pointed out, noting that many Korea PMP makers are actually working on them, using RMI's MIPS-based processor.

Still, Strauss said he has yet to see a MIPS core in a mobile handset.

To judge whether the MIPS people aren't just caught up in wishful thinking, it's necessary to ask whether MIPS already has the right stuff, like low-power cores for mobile handset chips. The bigger question is: What could possibly tip mobile OEMs to ditch ARM and go for MIPS?

Joseph Byrne, a senior analyst with the Linley Group, is another analyst who was caught by surprise at MIPS' intended plan to go after cell phone application processor sockets. He cautioned: "MIPS faces an uphill battle."

With processors, the key success factors are software, price, performance, power, and price/performance and performance/watt.

First, let's examine the technologies behind those competing cores. How does MIPS stack up against ARM?

Linley Group's Byrne said that the MIPS 74K is not as power efficient as the ARM Cortex-A9 or Cortex-A8 in terms of mW/MHz.

"Normalizing for actual application performance, the 74K may be more efficient than the A8, but is unlikely more efficient than the A9," he added. "Part of the reason is that MIPS hasn't focused as much on power efficiency."

Further, he said: "It's possible that minor tweaking (e.g., to the distribution of clock buffers) would yield an improvement in power consumption of the 74K and put it at parity. Theoretically, the 74K is likely to scale to higher clock rates than either Cortex, but only ARM is pointing to a 2GHz, albeit hand-tuned and hardened, implementation."

Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat, acknowledged that there is no one clear answer. Both architecturesMIPS and ARMoffer synthesizable cores that could be used in cellphones, smart phones, and many other mobile applications, he said.

"They are both viable building blocks for a SoC, which is the final processor solution for all these applications," he said. "The performance, power consumption, and features of the final SoC depend upon the chip designer, other IP, and manufacturing process."

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