Samsung has signed a subscription license that covers the Mali range of graphics processor units (GPUs) from ARM Holdings plc (Cambridge, England).
The subscription license is one level down from an architectural license and essentially gives Samsung access to every Mali core that will come out of ARM over a defined length of time, including those Mali graphics cores yet to be designed by ARM engineers.
It represents an upfront commitment by Samsung to the Mali GPU architecture and therefore could be interpreted as being a negative indicator for GPU licensing rivals such as Imagination Technologies Group plc, Nvidia Corp., Vivante Corp., and Digital Media Professionals Inc. It could also imply that Samsung does not intend to deploy an internally designed GPU to any great extent as a way to diminish royalty costs in the near future.
Imagination's PowerVR GPU cores are often seen to offer superior mobile graphics performance but increasingly the ability to provide prevalidated combinations of CPUs and GPUs together is compelling. In general, the Cortex-Mali combination from ARM has been favored over the MIPS-PowerVR line up from Imagination (see ARM Overtakes Imagination in GPU Shipments).
Mali has also done well in digital television—75% market share in 2014, according to ARM—another area where Samsung can exploit the Mali subscription license. ARM also claimed in its recent financial results presentation that it had approximately 50% of the GPU opportunity in Android tablets in 2014.
In the past, Samsung has tended to make licensing decisions on a design-by-design basis and has combined ARM-compatible CPUs with both PowerVR and Mali GPUs in different generations of its Exynos application processor line.
The need to be able to move programming across hardware, from phone to tablet to television is another argument for Samsung to standardize its graphics platforms. While the latest licensing deal is not exclusive, it could indicate that Samsung is looking to standardize on ARM's Mali graphics.
However, Tom Hackenberg, senior analyst for MCUs and MPUs at IHS cautions, "I would not presume that Samsung is completely switching their graphics to ARM Mali, though it is possible. Samsung has been using Mali extensively already, but this is just an all-you-can-eat buffet pricing deal."
"This may be a financial optimization decision where they have come to the realization that license deal will save them money at their current rate of usage of Mali cores. It also provides leverage against Vivante and Imagination Technologies to sweeten their licensing deals as both companies know that if they are not extremely price competitive, Samsung will now be likely to choose ARM by default for future design iterations," Hackenberg says.
The subscription license covers the T820/830/860 and T880 Mali cores as well as "all future Mali GPUs." ARM did not indicate the time period covered by the license but described the agreement as "long-term" in a statement.
"The visual quality is a critical part of high-end mobile devices. The highly scalable and energy-efficient ARM Mali family gives us the flexibility we need to address a broad range of devices," says Jae Cheol Son, senior vice president, processor development team at Samsung Electronics, in the same statement.
Imagination Technologies was asked for a comment but had not responded by the time this article was published.
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