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ARM's Mali brings GPGPUs to the masses

Out of the server room and into the pocket
Thu Nov 11 2010, 18:52

THE DECISION of British chip design outfit ARM to update its Mali GPU extending support for OpenCL could signal the dawn of mainstream GPGPU use.

The Mali-T604 GPU is the firm's fourth generation GPU and the third chip to offer a programmable GPU. Except now the firm has included OpenCL support on both the CPU and GPU cores. This got us wondering whether ARM really was stepping into the accelerator market, or whether it was merely extending the capabilities of mobile devices.

Talking exclusively with The INQUIRER, Ian Smythe, director of marketing at ARM's media processing division, spoke quite strongly in presenting the chip, saying that its licensees are free to do whatever they want with the Mali-T604. Smythe did say that he envisions the chip being used in set-top boxes and mobile graphics.

The need for fast, programmable GPUs has grown from being the sole preserve of high performance computing (HPC) towards consumer oriented applications that require more computing power than ever before. Loathing to use the marketeer's latest buzzword of the moment - 'augmented reality' - Smythe said that any application that needs to scan images to recognise location or objects can make use of a GPU like the Mali.

Smythe confidently said that the Mali-T604 can decode HD 1080p video in real time, which is the absolute minimum if the firm is to flog the design to set-top box manufacturers.

He attributed the relatively slow pace of growth in memory bandwidth compared to compute performance resulted in computing screen data becoming more "economical" than relying on textures.

Talking about the challenges of designing such a chip, Smythe mentioned that ARM had to consider not only the graphics performance of the Mali chip, but compute performance of the whole system-on-chip (SOC) and the challenges of coherence in memory sharing.

Asked why the firm ARM chose to support OpenCL instead of Nvidia's CUDA, Smythe was clear that ARM's history has been in supporting open standards, labelling CUDA proprietary. He also believed that OpenCL is the right choice for embedded applications and that over time OpenCL will "driven through" to become the standard.

GPGPU accelerators have been around for some time though deployment in specialist use cases is hardly what the industry wants to see. Due to strict power restrictions, ARM's Mali chip is never going to compete in the performance stakes with the likes of AMD or Nvidia directly, but it could well bring GPGPU out of the server room and into the homes and pockets of the masses.

With Samsung picking up the Mali-T604, the scene is set for a wide range of consumer electronics to have OpenCL support and usher in a new generation of devices that make use of GPUs. µ



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