ARM's eight-core Mali GPUs promise 'dramatic' boost to mobile graphics

James Han

The current flagship for ARM's mobile graphics technology is undoubtedly the Galaxy S III, which contains a quad-core Mali 400 GPU and delivers some wild benchmark scores. By the end of this year though, we should see a whole new generation of Malis -- not just a Mali 450 for mid-range handsets, but also the quad-core T604 and the eight-core T658, which are based on ARM's Midgard architecture and are taking forever to come to market. Now, to whet our appetites even further, ARM has just added three more variants of the chip to its roster, which can almost be considered the next-next-generation: the quad-core T624, and the T628 and T678, which are both scalable up to eight cores.

The trio's headline feature is that they promise to deliver at least 50 percent more performance with the same silicon area and power draw, with the explicit aim of delivering "console-class gaming," 4K and even 8K video workloads, as well as buttery 60fps user interfaces in phones, tablets and smart TVs. The premium T678 is aimed at tablets specifically, and in addition to allowing up to eight cores also doubles the number of math-crunching ALUs per core, which means that its compute performance (measured in gigaflops) is actually quadrupled compared to the T624. However, there's one other, subtler change which could turn out to be equally important -- read on for more.

ARM's eightcore Mali GPUs promise 'dramatic' boost to mobile graphics

So, what is that secondary improvement? It's ARM's curious decision to dedicate a small section of silicon (two percent, in fact) solely to running a new graphical compression codec, which the company has designed in-house and handed over Khronos as an open standard. The codec -- called Adaptive Scalable Texture Compression (ASTC) -- is all about stopping the "fragmentation of standards" that game and app developers have to deal with. Currently, a developer has to choose different codecs to achieve different levels of texture compression for different platforms: for example, they might choose an 8-bit-per-pixel codec for desktop and then an entirely separate 4-bit-per-pixel codec for mobile. ASTC will put an end to all that, ARM claims, by supporting all manner of textures, color standards and bit-rates, and thereby becoming the "the new standard" which has "no competitors." This remains to be seen, of course, but somewhere on the outskirts of Cambridge, UK, and audible only to coders who know what an 8-bit HDR BPTC texture is, a gauntlet may have just hit the floor.

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