There are a number of IP vendors in the SoC processor space. ARM, MIPS and PowerPC are the most popular. Each vendor holds the edge in a particular area. For example, PowerPC has a big market share in the high end communication market, thanks to its licensees ((Freescale, AMCC etc.). MIPS, on the other hand, has been maintaining its stronghold in the Set Top Box (STB) market thanks to designs from companies like Broadcom and Sigma Designs. ARM needs no introduction, thanks to the popularity they enjoy because of the mobile revolution. If you pick up a smartphone or a tablet, there is a very high probability that it is powered by an ARM core.

With the mobile revolution threatening to subsume multiple consumer markets in its convergence push, it is now essential for almost every vendor to have a mobile strategy. Not only do SoC vendors have to adapt themselves, the processor IP vendors also need to make the required push. Over the last two years, MIPS has been very vocal about getting into the mobile market. Of course, actions speak louder than words, and we stopped by MIPS's CES suite to see what they had on offer.

While ARM has a number of high profile companies like NVIDIA, TI and Qualcomm churning out ARM based SoCs for the mobile market, MIPS has decided to start at the low end in the Chinese market. MIPS claims that there are already around 8 to 12 mobile phones in the Chinese market with MIPS-based SoCs. With the tablet market set to explode in the next 2 to 3 years, MIPS is readying up for the battle ahead. MIPS has signed up around 10 mobile licensees, of which InGenic and Action Semiconductors already have products shipping. Over the last two years, MIPS has been demonstrating devices based on SoCs from these two manufacturers at CES.

Mobile devices based on MIPS SoCs have largely stayed under the radar due to their middling performance and build quality. The most successful of these devices was undoubtedly the Velocity Cruz which sold for as low as $130 and ran Android 2.3 before it was discontinued. MIPS claimed that more than a million units were sold. A couple of months back, MIPS made a huge splash with a couple of InGenic SoC based tablets from Ainol, namely, the Novo7 Paladin at $79 and the Novo7 Basic at $93. While some describe the Novo7 Paladin as a glorified MP4 player running Android, the Novo7 Basic actually bumps up the specs to include cameras for video conferencing. I had a chance to play around with the units. While it was definitely no Transformer Prime, I did find it more than acceptable for the price.

An issue with the Novo7 units for the US market is the fact that they come with a number of Chinese apps installed. MIPS indicated that a US version was in the works, and it would include predominantly US-centric apps. MIPS was also upfront about the DRM capabilities of the InGenic SoC, and indicated that while the SoC wouldn't pass muster to deliver HD Netflix streams, there should be no issues getting Netflix certification for the SD streams. Another issue is the somewhat misleading specifications of the various versions. On the Ainovo website, there are claims of the unit being capable of decoding 10b H.264 videos, which I find hard to believe. Also, while the Novo7 Paladin can output 1080p video, it is only capable of 720p decode. On the other hand, the Novo7 Basic claims full 1080p decode and output capability. Despite coming with the same SoC, buyers could get misled because of internal firmware differences (Obvious hardware differences such as the lack of cameras in the Paladin do not seem to be the only aspects resulting in a lower price). On the whole, this initiative from MIPS (getting low cost Android based devices out in the market) is a big win for Android. Google, by itself, just wants more Android systems out there. Therefore, it was no surprise that these tablets received an endorsement from Andy Rubin when they were announced late last year.

MIPS has various licensees active in the STB and communication market. The most notable amongst them are Broadcom, Sigma Designs and Lantiq. Some of the STB features and products enabled by MIPS are presented in the gallery below.

MIPS has a number of challenges ahead of it in the mobile front:

  1. There is a need to ensure that the latest version of Android is capable of running on all their processor based SoC platforms.
  2. MIPS needs to work with the app writers to ensure that apps that don't use the Dalvik VM, but rely on native ARM instructions, are fixed to run on MIPS-based SoCs also. There were some press releases before CES regarding this aspect (MIPS and GameLoft teamed up to ensure that the latter's games ran well on the MIPS-based tablets also)
  3. The most challenging issue for MIPS will be to sign up licensees with the financial might to get their SoCs fabricated at lower / cutting-edge process geometries. The InGenic SoC inside the Novo7 tablets is manufactured in a 65nm process. With Tegra 2 and other tablet SoCs being manufactured in the 40nm process and moving fast towards smaller geometries, MIPS-based SoCs are already trailing in the performance per watt metric. However, smaller geometries also bring with them costlier SoCs, so it will be a fine line that needs to be toed.

In summary, it is good to see MIPS coming up as a credible competitor to ARM in the mobile space. With ARM trying to encroach upon the 20-year old MIPS64 market, the tussle in the embedded processor space just got a lot more interesting. It will be exciting to see how this plays out over the next 3 or 4 years.

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  • iwod - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    MIPS have an advantage for 64bit, I wonder if its power consumption can be as low as ARM.
  • pugster - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    That's the problem. Apple and later Google chose ARM because MIPS has no products for cell/smart phones. However, MIPS has been used on "higher power products" and MIPS has been used on 64 bit as well as multicore processors. ARM have issues with scalability and other performance related problems compared to MIPS. We will have to see if MIPS can get out of its comfort zone and see if they can convince the manufacturers that they can make better products compared to ARM.
  • blue_cheese - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    MIPS has strong roots in TV and STB, but is fast losing the race even in these markets. Most of the LCD TVs produced so far use MIPS cores, and this includes SoCs made with 45nm or even 40nm. The biggest problem for MIPS is to reconcile with the fact that they are not the market leaders ..and cannot afford to model their business(or behavior) on the lines of Intel. So it is heartening to see MIPS start at the bottom - and try to get into commodity mobile / tablet business rather than try flirting with the big guys. (Perhaps they tried the latter and failed?).

    Secondly, MIPS needs to get into good books with Google and prove that Android works just as well on MIPS. However they cannot run with the hares and hunt with the hounds at the same time.

    Thirdly, they need an IP ecosystem. ARM has Mali in their backyard and the benefit of several independent IP providers dishing out everything from radios to codecs to video improvement blocks to optimized software. If you want to make a SoC, selecting ARM makes your life easy. Selecting MIPS, circa 2012, makes it challenging.
  • Penti - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    Depends on your application allot, MIPS might not have much going for it in the mobile space now days and did certainly lost out a bit on the mobile gpu front (although many of the current techs where developed for the mips market). They could still very well hold an advantage in specialized applications because the vendor has strong SDK's and platforms built around it which is certainly lacking in the ARM-space still.

    That said they need Android and or Google TV and other smart platforms not to be pushed out of the space. MIPS is still powering plenty of CE and communications/enterprise systems. That vendors like Ingenic with Xburst is quite low end doesn't mean any mips implementation needs to be. It's certainly mass market products that drives both MIPS Technologies and ARM Ltd for that matter, which means not all SoC's will be top of the line. Although PowerPC is also strong in the automotive business as is MIPS it's hard to compete against say ARM7 microcontrollers. There are clearly different strengths.

    Broadcom is still a major supplier and is moving MIPS-based STB, media, DTV/IPTV, home networking, etc applications along. Unless they switch you won't really get the same tools for ARM there. They might not drive baseband chips but neither is ARM Cortex-A8/9/15. ARM solutions simply doesn't have as strong IP, software and support like MIPS vendors in the STB field. Or other fields. It's not all about network streaming, you also need support for receiving OTA, Cable, Satellite, IPTV channels as well as encryption and so on. They can probably bring more if they succeeds with bringing the smarts of internet streaming, browsing and mobile applications to their platforms. More then ARM, ARM implementors in the field has to start from scratch pretty much. Mips can scale both quite low as well as ultra high-powered 64-bit multicore network processors. Latter is something ARM can't compete in at all. PowerPC can though. Applications processors for Tablets and mobile phones then it gets harder of course. But you have to still keep in mind in some fields companies like Broadcom have heavily invested in their own custom architectures that are MIPS-compatible. It's not likely to disappear or be replace for many years. Obviously no mayor vendor tries to create MIPS application processors for phones and tablets though, so those is pretty much reserved to those Chinese vendors. MIPS aren't actually targeting that market with their own soft and hard-cores.
  • Wolfpup - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    It seems like not much uses them anymore. Sony did with the Playstation 1, 2, and Portable, but switched to PowerPC and ARM. Tivo switched from PowerPC in the Series 1 to MIPS in the 2, 3, and 4, but I don't really know what else uses them.

    It seems like anymore ARM and x86 would be viable replacements for them in most anything? I hate to see another CPU architecture get squeezed out, but I don't know what they offer...
  • ananduser - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    It might be over time. They're good for low end tablets right now. MIPS might challenge ARM during the long run more than x86.
  • Metaluna - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    I think a lot of the home routers (e.g. Linksys E-series) use MIPS-based Broadcom SoC's.

    The new TiVos also use Broadcom/MIPS, but I've heard many people mistakenly refer to them as using ARM cores. Seems kind of unfair that MIPS can't even get credit for that design win. People just assume anything embedded automatically equals ARM.
  • twotwotwo - Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - link

    Elsewhere in Google, the Native Client people are trying to work around architecture dependence by publishing native code as LLVM bytecode (Portable Native Client, or pNaCl). One bold approach would be for Google to ask for native code in LLVM bytecode format for native code in Android apps. Then the Goog compiles and distributes as x86, ARM, MIPS, PowerPC...

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