Will Your Next Smartphone Be 20 Times Faster?

Hold on to your hats -- things might get fast!

Chip technologist Imagination Technologies (OTC: IGNMF) says that its next mobile processor design is about 20 times faster than the last one. The last iteration, in turn, beats its predecessor by a factor of 9. You can run benchmarks side by side on the Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S to confirm this performance jump.

Not just any old benchmark, of course. You'd need one that focuses exclusively on high-performance graphics. Imagination's designs under the PowerVR brand do the magic behind 3-D graphics handling and other pixel-pushing on many of today's smartphones.

PowerVR's tile-based technology did more with less raw horsepower, and was always more efficient than traditional rendering methods espoused by NVIDIA (Nasdaq: NVDA  ) and Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD  ) . The brute power of NVIDIA and AMD/ATI solutions kicked PowerVR out of the traditional PC market; my Sega Dreamcast console uses these chips and I still have an old Kyro card humming along inside a server system at home, but that's like wearing bell-bottom pants while walking my pet rock these days. The markets have moved on.

Instead, PowerVR has become a powerhouse in mobile graphics, where ultra-efficient operations and low power draws count for more than muscular pixel shaders and billions of triangles computed per second. In this market, NVIDIA has decided to shift gears into designing central processors rather than graphics solutions. AMD fired a perfectly capable CEO over his lack of mobile ambition. So now, this little British firm has the smartphone and tablet graphics market pretty much all to itself. Not a bad trade-off, I'd say.

As I said, Apple has adopted this solution for its mobile needs these days, including the last two iPhone and iPad generations. Likewise, the technology powers a plethora of Android devices from the Droid Bionic to Nexus S.

In search for a capable graphics solutions for its popular OMAP processor line, Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN  ) has already committed to PowerVR's sixth-generation designs. So have at least five other licensees. Apple could very well be among them, though the company's tight-lipped traditions leave us in the dark until the iPad 3 becomes available for testing and analysis. Cupertino owns a 9% slice of Imagination Technologies' public shares plus an undisclosed private stake, so it has some incentive to keep the graphics contracts close to its vest.

So yeah, the next iPhone will probably be 20 times faster than the 4S -- but only in terms of graphics power. Will this dramatic jump move iPhones beyond casual gaming in an explosion of glorious 3-D polygons? It's a rib-tickling possibility, but only time will truly tell, so add Apple to your watchlist to keep an eye on that situation. This trillion-dollar market can surely support more than a few suppliers.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Texas Instruments and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple and NVIDIA, as well as creating a bull call spread position in Apple and writing puts on NVIDIA. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinion, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Check out Anders' holdings and bio, or follow him on Twitter and Google+. We have a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2012, at 12:21 PM, 1984macman wrote:

    Investors in general have NO IDEA where Apple Inc is heading. Unless the price of AAPL goes through the roof in the next two weeks, when Apple Inc announces its earnings the E part of the P/E ratio will soar and the ratio itself will plummet. How many investors know that Apple's revenue increased over 50% in fy 2010, over 65% in fy 2011, and looks to equal or exceed that this year?

    And don't even get me started on EPS growth....

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