Introduction

One of ARM’s most tangible business advantages is its offer of both CPUs and GPUs to SoC designers. Anyone with experience in business to business relationships knows just how complex forming and maintaining a mutually beneficial collaboration can be. Setting up contracts, forming rapport, defining goals, and even just understanding documentation and technical content formatting all takes time. Unless there is significant benefit to investing in two different relationships and technologies, it is simpler (read: cheaper) to single source contributing components of a design. There are down sides of single sourcing (see Boeing 787 battery fiasco), but depending on a business’ capacity for risk, the savings are undeniable. Especially when ARM undoubtedly offers bundle pricing promotions.

When Imagination Technologies acquired MIPS Technologies in 2012 for $100 million, their goal was very clear – attack ARM. Imagination’s GPU business was already wildly successful, with design wins in a bevy of high end mobile devices including those from Samsung and Apple. Adding the CPU cores from MIPS, with their decades of history designing and licensing IP, strategically positioned Imagination opposite ARM’s licensing business. Imagination’s executives have also stated they are prepared to offer aggressive IP bundling discounts.

Looking at Imagination’s product, press, demos, and interviews, it appears they are not (yet?) positioning MIPS cores to combat ARM cores at the high end of the market. Rather, they appear focused on being a viable alternative to ARM in multi-threaded and low power workloads. In fact, the vast majority of MIPS cores are currently used in network infrastructure where threading and power efficiency are paramount.

Today MIPS is announcing a major launch: the Warrior I6400 core. Based on the 64-bit MIPS64 instruction set (release 6), the Warrior I6400 core is the middle-class CPU core in a family of three, each targeting a different point in the power/performance curve. Imagination is releasing the I6400 core last, which is at the middle of the pack balancing performance with power. Imagination has already released their high-end P56xx series and low-end M51xx series.

The most analogous ARM core to the I6400 appears to be the ARM Cortex-A53, but I6400 has some interesting features we haven’t seen in this market before and MIPS estimates it will deliver higher performance. I’ve produced a table here to help put performance in context. Note that only A57, A53, P5600, and I6400 are 64-bit processors.

MIPS and ARM High End IP Cores in Order of Performance
MIPS Manufacturer
Estimated
DMIPS/MHz/core
ARM
  5.0 Cortex-A57
  4.0 Cortex-A17
Cortex-A15
P5600 3.5  
I6400 3.0  
  2.5 Cortex-A9
  2.3 Cortex-A53
  1.9 Cortex-A7

Keep in mind that these processors use different instruction sets (ISAs) so DMIPS are not directly comparable. However, as they are both RISC processors, the DMIPS should hopefully be roughly comparable. I would like to use directly comparable CoreMark scores but only MIPS provides CoreMark numbers for their processors.

While no one can accurately predict if Imagination will grab additional market share away from ARM, we can educate ourselves on this alternative before it potentially arrives in our hands and homes. And besides, competition is always a good thing.

MIPS ISA & Mobile Devices
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  • Wilco1 - Tuesday, September 02, 2014 - link

    I think name99 is a bit harsh but he has valid points. For example the MIPS CoreMark results use a special plugin that adds a CoreMark specific optimization. So it is misleading to claim a great CoreMark result.

    Now if this optimization was added to mainline and also enabled when benchmarking the "competitor" then it would be a fair comparion.
    Reply
  • mthrondson - Sunday, September 07, 2014 - link

    I'm not familiar with this special plug in. Can you elaborate? Reply
  • Samus - Wednesday, September 03, 2014 - link

    MIPS has always been superior to ARM in regards to "performance per watt" even dating back to the PocketPC day's (1997) but its success has always suffered because of architecture complexity. You might as well port machine code before you recompile an app from ARM to MIPS.

    The success of MIPS lies with the quality of the development kits, compilers, and price (which they will apparently be aggressively targeting)
    Reply
  • jjj - Tuesday, September 02, 2014 - link

    Interesting but will be hard for them to get big wins in mobile (the main SoC anyway). Even if they try to be cheaper , how much cheaper do they need to be to justify the compatibility issues.
    A note here, you look at the competition between ISAs but don't forget that we got a bunch of custom ARM cores too so for consumers it's even more fun.
    Also the Meizu MX4 launched today ,first device with the quad A17 Mediatek so a notable event.Haven't really seen any proper benchmarks for A17 yet ,hopefully soon.
    Reply
  • alexvoica - Tuesday, September 02, 2014 - link

    The compatibility issue is going away fast. MIPS64 is a proven architecture that has a full ecosystem built around it, while others are still catching up. Additionally, 64-bit is an inflection point where a lot of software will need to be recompiled so a lot of people are actually starting from scratch. Reply
  • evolucion8 - Tuesday, September 02, 2014 - link

    While I am in love with ARM, I look forward for MIPS too! Reply
  • Notmyusualid - Tuesday, September 02, 2014 - link

    The more competition, the better... Reply
  • Wilco1 - Tuesday, September 02, 2014 - link

    There is no requirement to recompile anything but the OS - existing apps continue to run in 32-bit without a penalty. Reply
  • alexvoica - Wednesday, September 03, 2014 - link

    There is a requirement if you want your software to take advantage of the latest architectural improvements. If you don't, it will still run, yes - but not as fast/efficiently as it could. Reply
  • bleh0 - Tuesday, September 02, 2014 - link

    I have to say from a feature standpoint this seems far more interesting then A53. I just doubt that by this time next year we will actually see it in devices. Reply

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