So far this is shaping up to be a banner year for SoCs. From a market perspective the mobile hardware space is still in a period of significant growth, but more importantly from a hardware point of view these products and especially the GPUs in these products have made significant strides in performance and in features. SoC GPUs will approach feature parity with desktop GPUs this year, and from a performance perspective they’re nearing the performance of the last-generation game consoles, a long-aspired goal given the “good enough” status attached to those devices.

Meanwhile at the same time that these products are maturing at a technical level, we’ve seen the various SoC firms mature at a professional level. The “wild west” days of SoCs have given way to mature markets of longer product cycles, longer product lives, and a more stable market overall. This both good and bad news for the various players in the SoC market as firms get squeezed out – SoC integrators such as TI and STMicroelectronics have been the first of such victims – but it also means that as companies become better established and more deeply entrenched, they can be more open about their projects and their products, and discuss them in greater detail than before without needing to be concerned about getting scooped by a competitor.

Here at AnandTech we’re particularly fond of doing architectural deep dives; our chance to talk to the people behind various processors and learn from them about how their products work and how they came together. Thanks to the maturation of the SoC market we’re finally getting a level of access in the SoC market that we haven’t had before, and in turn for the first time we get to tell the stories of the people behind these mind-bogglingly complex devices while better learning how they operate and as such how they compare. It’s admittedly a level of access we take for granted in the PC space, where companies such as Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA are regularly open, but it’s hard to contain our excitement about gaining this kind of access to the myriad of players in the SoC space.

This year then has been especially productive in that regard, and as of today it’s going to get even better. After we took a look at Imagination’s PowerVR Rogue architecture earlier this year, ARM contacted us and indicated that they would like to do the same; that they would like to take a seat at the “open architecture” table. To give us the access we need to discover how their GPUs work, and in turn tell you what we’ve learned.

To that end we’ve gladly let ARM pull up a seat, and today we’ll be taking our first in-depth look at ARM’s newest Mali SoC GPU architecture: Midgard. Now as with Imagination what we’re seeing today is most, but not all of the picture, as ARM has their secrets and they wish to keep some of them. But today we get to learn all about Midgard’s shader cores while also learning a thing or two about its pixel rendering pipeline, power optimizations, and other aspects of what makes Midgard tick. In other words, more than enough to keep us busy for one day.

But before we dive in we’d also like to quickly call attention to an Ask The Experts session we held with ARM’s Jem Davies, an ARM Fellow and VP of Technology in the Media Processing Division. While our deep dive is focusing on Midgard’s architecture, Jem has been answering all sorts of additional Mali-related questions, including business strategy and ARM’s views on GPU computing.

Finally, as this is the second article in our continuing series on SoC GPUs, we will be picking up from where we left off after our last article. While all of our articles are meant to be accessible to some degree, if you haven’t caught any of our previous articles I’d highly recommend our primer on how GPUs work for a quick overview of the technology before we dive into the nuts and bolts of ARM’s Midgard architecture.

A Brief History of Mali
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  • darkich - Friday, July 4, 2014 - link

    You guys are missing the fact that Snapdragon 805 can reach a much higher memory bandwidth than Tegra K1. Reply
  • TheJian - Saturday, July 5, 2014 - link

    But it still loses to K1 in most gpu stuff (all?). You're forgetting AMD/NV have had 20yrs of trying to figure out how to get the most they can from bandwidth for gaming. The devs have had that long working with their hardware also (game devs I mean). Everyone else has to play catch up here for years as they've never had to do anything game wise until last year or so as android etc gaming pumped up a bit.

    That is why you see ZERO Qcom optimized games (or did I miss one?) :) It's easier to optimize for a chip you already know inside out (amd/nv). I even went to Qcom's gaming page just to see if there were any games they had on their list that were REQUIRING snapdragon to see xx effects etc. There were none last I checked. All the games are just on googleplay with no snapdragon mention (like on NV games they say THD, and these games look quite a bit better than the regular versions) as they appear to work on ALL players chips. Google seems to be realizing K1 is where you want to be on gpu's at least for gaming centric stuff/automotive and I'd expect devs to continue to favor NV for optimizations as they don't need to learn a thing about k1 it's KEPLER which they've already spent 2yrs+ playing with (probably longer as they get dev versions long before we get a retail card so games can be made/optimized for them by the time they hit).

    At 20nm xbox360/ps3 will be left behind as new games keep getting made on mobile. If you're not on xbox1/ps4 you'll be buying some cheap 20nm console box that has cheap games ($2-20 vs. $60 for xbox1/ps4) and as good or better graphics than last gen xbox360/ps3. GDC 2013 & 2014 surveys show devs are already massively making games for mobile and as 20nm kicks in everyone has K1 power levels or more. These android consoles/tv's etc will have more tricks than those ancient consoles so you should be able to get much better gaming experience on them for $100-200. The games pricing alone is a draw for poor people. With the ports happening right an left now of quality PC/console games and super cheap pricing there is even more reason to run to mobile for poor people who never played them before (half-life2, trine2, Serious Sam3BFE, none sold more than 11mil or so). There are a billion android users and most clearly have played none of this stuff even the console ports like Final Fantasy games, GTA games etc (on or off PC also doesn't matter) haven't been played by more than 10mil or so combined each. Lost of great stuff for poor people to pick up for under $10 in ports until the REAL new games for mobile hit this xmas/next xmas. All of the stuff the dev surveys show they've been working on will hit this year or next, and they are not angry birds games.
    Reply
  • przemo_li - Tuesday, July 8, 2014 - link

    Alternative view on Google stance:

    Nvidia is just first vendor that allowed them to show more features than are possible on Apples A7.

    (Mobile-only vendors are not interested in full OpenGL...)
    Reply
  • TheJian - Sunday, July 6, 2014 - link

    If they're worried about lawsuits (odd they'd say that without merit), they must have had their lawyers tell them they'd be sued due to stealing tech that is probably from AMD/NV. DMCA takedowns, completely closing the kimono so to speak shows they are afraid for good reason. It isn't just competitor crap as nobody else is afraid of that it seems. The same tricks are being used by almost everyone to a large degree. So it seems to me they clearly owe someone some money and don't want to pay. They will probably show their details once they remove that stuff from a future gen soc or never I guess if they just can't remove it for some reason :) Reply
  • mczak - Thursday, July 3, 2014 - link

    You could add Intel HD graphics (baytrail) though. Also quite interesting architecture-wise imho.
    btw some small correction wavefront size for amd (gcn) is 64, not 16 (I think this was wrong on older anandtech articles too). The simd size is 16 indeed but the same instruction is executed for 4 clocks always (on 16 different elements of the wavefront each clock).
    Reply
  • mczak - Thursday, July 3, 2014 - link

    Here's actually an explanation how the wavefront size of 64 works for gcn:
    http://devgurus.amd.com/thread/168154
    Reply
  • Achtung_BG - Thursday, July 3, 2014 - link

    My first touch phone is black LG Viewty in 2008 with Mali GPU :) :) :) If you have new article for android extention pack comparison with full Open GL will be very intrasting. Reply
  • Jedibeeftrix - Thursday, July 3, 2014 - link

    yes please.

    i'd like to know:
    1. how long until the AEP is rolled back into what will be OpenGL ES 4.0
    1.1. whether it represents a subset of an existing OpenGL full-fat version (eg 4.4)
    2. how this compares to DX 11.2 feature wise
    2.1. whether AEP will be expanded in OpenGL ES 4.0 to make it broadly DX 11.2 compliant
    Reply
  • przemo_li - Tuesday, July 8, 2014 - link

    1) Never. (Though, separate extensions, can get into ES. AEP is just thin bundle over many other extensions)
    1.1) Yes. OpenGL 4.x is still capable of running AEP code.
    2) DX11.2 is single vendor en-devour currently... (And You really should compare to F(eature)L(evel)11_2).
    2.1) WHY?

    Why on earth You need all those things?

    Industry move in different direction. (Mantle, DX12, Metal, AZDO)

    Doing stuff efficiently is new mantra now.

    Adding more stuff from DX FL11_2 (Yes if You talk about features You MUST use F(eature)L(evels)!!!), would only complicate things for OpenGL ES.

    We need AZDO.
    Reply
  • Kevin G - Thursday, July 3, 2014 - link

    I can see Qualcomm's concerns about a shader arms race in mobile: it has already happened on the CPU side without much benefit to the consumer. However, with the explosion in screen resolution in tablets, a spec race here would have a more tangible benefit for consumers. It sitll boggles my mind that a retina iPad has 50% more pixels and a slower GPU than my desktop system with a 1080p monitor driven by a GTX 770. My sole concern would be temperatures and power consumption.

    Well if Qualcomm isn't going to disclose the information, how much can be implied from driver information? Qualcomm purchased the mobile Radeon drivision from AMD back in 2009 and then came up with the anagram Adreno. If they're still using a design based upon what they got form AMD, it'd be reflective in similar drivers. If they've come up with a new architecture, it too would be evident in radically different drivers. The details would be lacking of course but some generalities could be made.
    Reply

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