The Big Unknown: Marvell’s GPU

The CPU core is simply one piece of the puzzle though. In the application processor business it’s the entire SoC that matters, not just the CPU core. While Intel, Samsung and TI (among others) license graphics cores from Imagination Technologies, Marvell uses a company called Vivante to provide graphics IP.

Only the ARMADA 500 and 600 series have hardware 3D graphics powered by Vivante’s GPU core. Unfortunately I have absolutely no information on its capabilities. Marvell is listing 1080p video playback as a feature so we at least have a full video decode engine.

Market Share and the Future

As I mentioned at the start of this piece, the ARM market is around 4 billion chips per year. Marvell expects this to grow to 5 billion as the market for smart devices expands (smartphones, smart TVs, smart, uh, otherthings).

Marvell itself shipped 1 billion processors last year, 65% of them with a core that implemented an ARM instruction set. The company has an engineering team (software + hardware) of over 1000 people, supposedly the largest ARM development team in the industry.

It takes this team around 6 months to get a chip from design to tapeout, add a couple more for integration and then to get it back from the fab. All in all you’re looking at a yearly cadence for new chips out of Marvell.

As smartphones become more PC-like in functionality, we’ll need to have faster hardware. Competition is a good thing and in the SoC space there’s lots of it. Marvell offers a unique twist on ARM, time will tell how it holds up to ARM’s own designs. Marvell believes it may even have more engineers working on microprocessors than ARM itself, something that will be necessary as these designs get more complex in the future.

In many senses the SoCs going into these smartphones are going through the same evolution we saw in the PC industry over the past 20 years, just on an accelerated schedule. I’m betting we’ll see the same sort of thinning in the SoC CPU and GPU markets as we did in the PC industry. We’re down to three companies in the PC space, wonder how many we’ll end up with in the SoC market.



View All Comments

  • PandaBear - Thursday, October 22, 2009 - link

    The reason CISC is easy on code size is that a lot of instruction and data are less than 32 bit. ARM has a Thumb instruction set that is only 16 bit so most of the code can be cramped into smaller size. When you are talking about code size of 48kB and an OS that is only 6kB, any saving counts.

    14 cents processor is the very low end one. The more powerful ones cost more of course. The processor in your flash drive is only around that much.
  • Sc4freak - Monday, October 19, 2009 - link

    Yes, it's the other way around. CISC architectures were designed to reduce memory pressure by cramming more work into the instructions. This reduces memory bandwidth requirements, but increases chip complexity. Reply
  • ProDigit - Monday, October 19, 2009 - link

    Interesting Article!!
    It's only a pitty that they still are manufacturing at 55nm. But even at 55nm, it can best out Intel's Atom on power levels, though be it with a little lower performance.
    When this ARM will be manufactured on the same die size as the Atom processor, it very well could outperform the Atom processor!
    The only con is that it does not have a form of hyperthreading available, that would make use of the sleeping parts in a core; and add a reduced system response time.

    It will have to bounce against the Atom SOC, which may utilize better 3D graphics (eventhough Intel graphics are pretty crappy, they might be better than ARM's graphics chip), at 45nm and a chip at 32nm.
    Nomatter how optimized the chip is, it's hard to beat a 32nm chip with a 55nm one performance/powerdraw-wise.
  • Lekko - Monday, October 19, 2009 - link

    what if you put on a conductive sheet under the processor to just double-up on the underside thickness of the pads? It would give you just a bit more contact especially if you used a softer conductive material for the pins to better mash into.

    That could be a potential $15 fix to the issue. Just need someone to manufacture a sheet with conductive pads in the same array.
  • bobsmith1492 - Monday, October 19, 2009 - link

    Wrong article?

    That sounds like a good idea, though (I'm assuming you mean the i5 pin contact issue).
  • Ronamadeo - Monday, October 19, 2009 - link

    Cortex A8 vs Snapdragon vs This.
    This is getting insane, we need phone benchmarks. Nowish.
    I want to know whether the A8 is faster than a snapdragon.
  • roymbrown - Monday, October 19, 2009 - link

    Snapdragon IS Cortex A8 as is Ti's OMAP3xxx and Samsung's processor in the iPhone 3GS. Other features (graphics, I/O, cache) may vary, but the processor core in these are identical. This is what makes the Marvel offering unique. Reply
  • Sc4freak - Monday, October 19, 2009 - link

    It's not a Cortex A8 in Snapdragon. Rather, it's a Qualcomm-customised core that's similar to the A8, but runs at a higher clockspeed (1ghz). Reply
  • roymbrown - Thursday, October 22, 2009 - link

    I stand corrected. Sorry for the misinformation and thanks for the correction. Cortex A8 vs Scorpion(processor core in Snapdragon) vs Sheeva benchmarks would indeed be interesting.

    Is Scorpion "based" on Cortex A8 beyond the instruction set? Most articles I see just say "similar to Cortex A8" and the ARM licensees page lists them under ARM11 licensees, but not Cortex. Does anyone know if Scorpion is code compatible with Cortex A8 or are there instruction set differences, like Sheeva's lack of NEON?
  • Randomblame - Monday, October 19, 2009 - link

    cool beans, maybe this will push the price of the snapdragon chips down a bit and make faster phones cheaper. I just can't wait to ditch the msm7201a it is the slowest most horribly underperforming chip in the universe.

    in 2002 microsoft changed the name of it's pocket pc os to windows mobile. every year or two since then they've changed the way it looks ever so slightly. Nearly 8 years later the os is the same damned thing but the processors have shrunk 4 times and been redesigned over and over - yet they run this operating system just as slow as they did 8 years ago. I'm ready for some changes.

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