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Next-Gen Atom To Use PowerVR; Good Or Bad?

Intel

Published on 10 May 2011 02:34 AM EDT
Written by Michael Larabel in Intel
9 Comments

While some of Intel's Atom processors use PowerVR graphics (the notorious Poulsbo and now Moorestown), the vast majority of the Atom CPUs on the market take advantage of Intel's own graphics technologies developed in-house. This allows Intel to provide Linux support via their mainline open-source driver and overall the support is quite good. However, it seems with the next-generation Atom CPUs, this will change.

There's news hitting the web today that Intel's Cedarview Atoms will be sporting a graphics core with its IP coming from Imagination and their PowerVR technology, similar to Poulsbo. It's expected these new Cedarview Atoms will have their graphics core derived from the PowerVR SGX545.

The Cedarview Atoms are supposed to launch this calendar year and will be built on a 32nm process, go through less power than existing Atoms, and will utilize DDR3 memory, among other improvements. Now it seems the graphics core will not be an in-house creation but yet another chip using PowerVR technology. The SGX545 IP core was announced last year and provides DirectX 10.1, OpenGL 3.2, and OpenCL 1.0 support.

On the surface this is very bad. The PowerVR Linux support is notorious. Imagination Technologies is not an open-source / Linux friendly company. PowerVR graphics under Linux -- such as the Intel Poulsbo SoC -- are notorious. In the case of Poulsbo, there's multiple drivers, but how well they work is a different story and the support is just very fragmented. Even on Intel's own MeeGo operating system, the Poulsbo and Moorestown support is crap.

Earlier this year, an open-source Poulsbo driver appeared that was merged into the mainline Linux kernel and provides kernel mode-setting support, but it goes without any acceleration support. The Free Software Foundation has deemed creating an open-source PowerVR driver a high priority, but no work is happening.

Could the perfect storm of change soon be happening for PowerVR under Linux? Possibly, but it's not yet confirmed and is based upon a number of independent events lining up and some rumblings that I've been hearing in recent days and weeks. It's a surprise to see more PowerVR technology on forthcoming Atoms. Intel representatives in the past have said they wouldn't abandon PowerVR, but they acknowledged the Linux support for Poulsbo & Co was problematic and that they would be seeking change.

The SGX545 PowerVR core is different from what's found in Poulsbo (SGX535) so new Linux driver work will have to be done regardless of whether it's open-source or not. Part of why I say a storm of change may soon be coming is there's another little known fact right now making the rounds in the X.Org development circles: Intel just hired a boatload of new Intel OSTC (Open-Source Technology Center) developers with lots of mobile experience.

When Nokia announced they would be banding together with Microsoft for their smart-phone platform and effectively doing away with MeeGo, many viewed this as a great loss for Linux. While Nokia has abandoned Linux for their phones and tablets, it was to Intel's gain. The dozens (circa 80) of developers Intel has just recently hired for the OSTC are former Nokia developers out of Finland. There's a couple well-known names in the mix.

These developers to be starting soon for Intel for their open-source group were working on MeeGo / Maemo at Intel. Several of these developers have graphics expertise and worked on the PowerVR Linux blobs; the Nokia N900 has a PowerVR SGX530 core, for example. What these developers will be doing for Intel OSTC though isn't publicly known at this point, but should emerge in the coming months. Regardless of whether it's for an open-source PowerVR driver or not, the work should be interesting.

I've also previously said, an open-source PowerVR driver may come in the third quarter with the support of Imagination Technologies.

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