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Android Device Chip Race: MIPS Takes On ARM

MIPS Technologies' upcoming proAptiv processor squares off against ARM's Cortex A-15, signaling renewed compeition in chip designs for Android smartphones and tablets.

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MIPS Technologies has no intention of leaving the Android device market to semiconductor heavyweight ARM, the company made clear this week. MIPS outlined ambitions to wrestle smartphone and tablet business away from ARM, and perhaps enable its licensees to challenge Apple's mobile products and Apple's internally-designed processors. Sunnyvale-based MIPS, which had announced its proAptiv processor design in May, shared more details during an August 28 presentation at the Hot Chips conference in Silicon Valley. Given mobile industry design timeframes, it may be 2014 before we know if the company's campaign is successful.

MIPS grew out of a project initiated by current Stanford president John Hennessey when he was a professor at the university in 1981. The company has evolved into a chipmaker specializing in consumer electronic components, such as those found in TVs, Blu-ray players, and--most crucially for its fledgling rivalry with ARM--Android devices aimed primarily at emerging markets. With its newest chips, MIPS hopes to leap from role player to star status.

[ Get the latest on Samsung's tablet and smartphone plans. See Samsung Galaxy Note 2, Windows 8 Smartphones: First Impressions. ]

The proAptiv design is an implementation of the MIPS32 architecture. Citing CoreMark CPU-centric benchmarks, MIPS claims its new product easily outclasses ARM Cortex-A9 cores and is in the same league as the Cortex-A15, ARM's newest architecture.

Neither ARM nor MIPS manufactures its own chips. Instead, both companies license their designs to other companies. Throndson claimed proAptiv fees will be lower than those charged by ARM, noting that the processor's smaller die size will allow more efficient power consumption while reducing silicon costs.

MIPS has already claimed symbolic victories over ARM, such beating its competitor in bringing 64-bit cores to market. Nonetheless, ARM controls much of the non-x86 marketplace thanks to a robust network of partners in the mobile market--something that MIPS currently lacks.

If the new design meets expectations, proAptiv offers a relatively clear path for MIPS to partner with system-on-a-chip designers such as NVIDIA and Qualcomm. Following the May announcement, there was even speculation that Microsoft could benefit from purchasing MIPS, as the acquisition would not only come at low cost (relative to, say, buying ARM) but also provide Apple-like control over internal components.

In media reports, Noel Hurley, ARM's VP of marketing and strategy, has dismissed the chatter as overhyped, and downplayed claims that proAptiv's reportedly smaller size engenders design advantages. ARM touts its chip's Trustzone technology (which facilitates secure payments and digital rights management), plus its virtualization and media processing capabilities.

This war of words is currently transitioning into marketplace skirmishes--but as previously noted, the outcome could be years away. New chip designs take around 18 months to appear in new products, so it will likely be late 2013 or early 2014 before on-paper comparisons become tangible advantages or missteps. In the meantime, industry watchers will keep an eye on the partners MIPS' proAptiv accrues, and whether any of them come at ARM's expense.

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Andrew Hornback
Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/2/2012 | 12:27:53 AM
re: Android Device Chip Race: MIPS Takes On ARM
Wow... MIPS is still around? I thought that after SGI stopped building with their chips that they'd have disappeared.

That said - what's the deal with all of these stories about Microsoft supposedly buying a chip manufacturer? nVidia and now MIPS... who's next? Intel?

Kidding aside, it's nice to have multiple architectures supporting Android - I wonder if this would lead to MIPS-powered Android tablets/netbooks? Might be cool to see IRIX windows forwarding from my old SGI Octane or Indigo2 on an Android.

As to the compilation issue, I'm sure there's some sort of software compatability layer/widget that could be used to handle any apps that wouldn't run natively on the MIPS hardware - if not, sounds like a business venture for someone out there.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
User Rank: Ninja
8/30/2012 | 6:22:12 PM
re: Android Device Chip Race: MIPS Takes On ARM
That's all well and good, and true, but what's missing from this is that most android app developers don't compile for mips chips, leaving those who purchase an android based on mips in the cold. I'm not talking games developers, as most of those actually do choose mips in the compile options...rather the big boys such as Microsoft's own Skype, Yahoo, Opera, Mozilla, Google, Netflix, etc., have not made their flagship products available to mips android devices. So yeah, your mips android will probably outperform your arm android, but there isn't a whole lot you can do with it right now...
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