The debate between "PC Everywhere" and "Post PC" is currently raging in the boardrooms and between consumers and there are mostly two bases everybody discusses: X86 or ARM architecture. Well, not anymore…
After spending most of their time outside the limelight, MIPS Technologies marked a very strong week by announcing that the company successfully started the manufacturing of the brand new high-performance, three-way microprocessor chip using 28nm-SLP (Super Low Power) process node at GlobalFoundries Fab 1 in Dresden, Germany.
The chip was a development between MIPS Technologies and eSilicon Corporation, with the expected clock between 1GHz as worst-case scenario, while the optimal clock target is 1.5GHz. Given that the chip is in manufacturing right now, it will take about three months to deliver first chips to customers. Still, bear in mind the 1GHz minimum, 1.5GHz optimal figure.
The week continued with MIPS Technologies making another joint announcement, this time with Chinese manufacturer Aionovo (no relationship to Lenovo). Aionovo debuted NOVO7, world's first android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" tablet for the non-subsidized price of $100, i.e. you can expect that carriers will be offering them for free with subscription.
This tablet is powered by Ingenic Semiconductor JZ4770 SoC, containing a single MIPS32-based processor core operating at 1GHz, paired with Vivante GC860 GPU featuring complete Full HD acceleration (video processing engine).
While this 7" tablet won't be sold out of China until at least spring-to-summer period, the magnitude of this announcement speaks volumes. Our industry sources working at companies that manufacture x86 and ARM-based solutions almost unanimously expressed their concern. If Ice Cream Sandwich ends up working smooth on a tablet for $100, all it takes is a decent CPU upgrade, capacitive touch-screen instead of the ultra-cheap resistive one and voila, a competitor for the current and future ARM and X86 based designs is born.
MIPS is not a small player either. While ARM likes to boast that the company ships billions of devices per year, MIPS also powers numerous set-top-boxes, TVs, network switches, automotive and avionics systems – competing against ARM. MIPS Technologies had management issues through their long history but things started to change last year, after Sandeep Vij was named CEO. The company went through reorganization and the result is a more nimble competitor.
One of people giving thumbs up to MIPS is Andy Rubin, Senior VP of Mobile, Google Inc. He stated that he is "thrilled to see the entrance of MIPS-Based Android 4.0 tablets into the market". Furthermore, Andy stated that Google wants to see more high-performance MIPS solutions, as "low cost, high performance tablets are a big win for mobile consumers and a strong illustration of how Android's openness drives innovation and competition for the benefit of consumers around the world."
MIPS already speaks 64-bit
Unlike ARM, MIPS developed a 64-bit architecture quite some time ago, with the products based on MIPS64 shipping inside networking equipment. According to information available, Cavium Networks, NetLogic Microsystems and even CISCO are either shipping or evaluating MIPS64 architecture for their network products. In comparison, ARM is now talking about 64-bit but the company did not announce 64-bit part as of today. 32-bit Cortex-A15 and derived products will debut in products next year, and 64-bit is only expected in 2013-2014 timeframe.
While MIPS originally worked with their own licensors using less advanced processing nodes, the launch of 28nm part which targets as high clock as the fastest clocked Cortex-A9 speaks volumes. While SOC needs to be bundled with a powerful graphics, image processing and connectivity systems, ARM just might find themselves in dead heat with MIPS Technologies. Also, bear in mind that Qualcomm already heavily modifies Cortex architecture and flat out refuses to specifically name ARM in their marketing materials, NVIDIA is developing its own 64-bit ARM-based architecture… the number of companies using future reference Cortex cores in high end parts might drop to just a few players.
Good Enough Computing coming back to haunt ARM?
By launching the already mentioned Aionovo NOVO7 tablet, the 32-bit JZ4770 is already operating at 1GHz, while the upcoming 28nm parts are expected to scale to 1.5GHz and beyond. Should the company optimize their 32-bit and 64-bit MIPS architecture alongside 28nm-SLP and introduce 20nm-LP and -SLP nodes at GlobalFoundries and TSMC, MIPS Technologies just might have a ticket to ride to pressure ARM and their gigantic ecosystem. Naturally, Intel is also coming to the mix with 22nm based Silvermont, who is set to debut in 2013.
Power consumption also seems to be the strong side of the MIPS architecture. The JZ4770 SOC consumes only 0.25W under 100% CPU and video engine load (1080p playback), which is significantly less than ARM competitors. Naturally, as you beef up the GPU and add a second core, the power consumption will go up, but still below ARM-based products. And when ARM posed a question of "good enough" computing to counter Intel and AMD claims of high-performance requirements for desktop computing, did the company thought that a competitor might say the same question to them? Is MIPS making lower power consuming parts than ARM for "good enough computing"?
While we won't know the answer for this for quite some time, but the battle is on. MIPS vs. ARM vs. AMD vs. Intel.