ARM has been making waves over the past two years with plenty of processor and graphics IP announcements, but they are not alone in the game. MIPS Technologies, almost as old as ARM itself, also licenses RISC processors. With licensees like Broadcom and Sigma Designs, they have undoubtedly held the upper hand in the home entertainment / set-top-box arena as well as the networking space. However, success in the fast-growing mobile / tablet space has been hard for MIPS to come by, thanks to ARM being well-entrenched in that market.

Today, MIPS is introducing a range of new processor IP cores in the Aptiv lineup, similar to ARM's Cortex. The members of this lineup range from small microcontroller cores to triple dispatch superscalar ones. By introducing a member at each performance level to compete directly with offerings from ARM, MIPS has made its move in the processor IP battle.

MIPS last introduced a new processor IP core back in September 2010, the MIPS 1074K Coherent Processing System. Between September 2010 and now, ARM officially announced the Cortex-A15 (well after TI had announced an SoC based on it) and Cortex-A7. In the preceding year, the Cortex-A5 and the Cortex-M4 had been launched. The Aptiv series from MIPS introduces members which compete against each of these offerings.

Throughout the briefing, MIPS stressed that the standard DMIPS/MHz/core was not a reliable benchmark. Instead, they promoted CoreMark in which their cores performed better than ARM's offerings. CoreMark is comprised of small and easy to understand ANSI C code with a realistic mixture of read/write operations, integer operations, and control operations. CoreMark has a total binary size of no more then 16K using gcc on an x86 machine (this small size makes it more convenient to run using simulation tools). We do agree with MIPS that it could be a better measure of L1 cache and branch prediction performance. Unfortunately, we don't have reliable CoreMark data for the upcoming Cortex-A15, and hence, will be using DMIPS/MHz/core as a rough performance comparison metric in the rest of the piece.

The Aptiv series being launched today consists of three families, the proAptiv, interAptiv and microAptiv. While proAptiv and interAptiv come in multi-core variants (with up to 6 for the former and 4 for the latter), the microAptiv family members are all single core.

The following tables presents the various MIPS and ARM processor IP cores available for licensing in order of their performance. Note that multiple generations of processors are presented in the table. The Cortex-A,R & M series cater to the application processor segment, real-time processing segment and the microcontroller segment respectively. They are matched field for field by the proAptiv, interAptiv and microAptiv series being launched by MIPS today.

MIPS and ARM High End IP Cores in Order of Performance
proAptiv 3.5 Cortex-A15
  2.5 Cortex-A9
1074K 2.03  
74K 2.0 Cortex-A8
  1.9 Cortex-A7
  1.57 Cortex-A5
M24K 1.46  
  1.24 ARM11
  1.14 ARM9

In terms of processor IP cores catering to real-time applications where high reliability (such as ECC support for the internal caches) and low power footprint is also required, the interAptiv family and the Cortex-R series go head to head. That said, MIPS also targets interAptiv family members as alternatives for Cortex-A5 / A7 / A9. However, the target market for the Cortex-R series and interAptiv series are similar (wireless baseband / automotive applications such as safety and powertrain control etc.)

MIPS and ARM Mid-Range IP Cores in Order of Performance
  2.5 Cortex-R7
interAptiv 1.7  
  1.66 Cortex-R5
34K 1.62 Cortex-R4
1004K 1.5  
24K 1.46  

In the microcontroller class processor IP cores, the microAptiv series is pitted against the Cortex-M series.

MIPS and ARM Microcontroller Class IP Cores in Order of Performance
microAptiv 1.57  
M14K 1.5  
M4K 1.3  
  1.25 Cortex-M3 / Cortex-M4
  0.9 Cortex-M0
  0.8 Cortex-M1

In the next few sections, we will look at the architectural details of the newly introduced processors.


proAptiv Architecture
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  • CrankUpThePowerIgor - Thursday, May 10, 2012 - link

    We have 32 bit cores?

    Phones need 64 bit as much as they need 4 cores, but I'm sure it would sell ;)
  • jjj - Thursday, May 10, 2012 - link

    You keep mentioning die area but never list some actual numbers (or maybe i missed those?). Die are wise it is amusing that they only compare to A15 .Since it seems that it can't clock as high as A15 it's not a fair comparison.The 2 don't target the same markets anyway so w/e.
    The lower clocked core(s) solution sounds way too much like Nvidia's 4+1 ,wonder if they'll have anything to say about that.

    "it looks likely that the architecture of choice in the mobile / tablet space will become a two way shootout between ARM and x86"
    Unless China decides to go with it's own ISA and then things will get a bit more complicated.
  • bji - Thursday, May 10, 2012 - link

    That is a terrible marketing name.
  • bji - Thursday, May 10, 2012 - link

    Am I really reading that right? Are those memory controllers really that small? Sounds barely visible to the naked eye.
  • ganeshts - Thursday, May 10, 2012 - link

    Yes, they are really small. Usually, there are some peripherals around them on the die, and then, there is the packaging which makes it visible to the eye :)
  • metafor - Thursday, May 10, 2012 - link

    It should be noted that Krait is on the 28LP node currently and that corresponds to its frequency of 1.5GHz. ARM's A15 numbers on 28LP are around ~2GHz (OMAP 5430 being the primary example).
  • ganeshts - Thursday, May 10, 2012 - link

    We can't have too many inferences from the frequency of operation.

    With appropriate choice of libraries, usage of low Vt cells etc., Qualcomm could have probably gotten Krait to run at 2 GHz had they wished. It probably means that Qualcomm is satisfied with 1.5 GHz for their target market. ARM's A15 numbers will vary widely, and the OMAP 5430 is just one case..

    We should actually compare operating frequency with the same set of libraries / same process node / same operating corner, but different vendors quote different circumstances.. So, it is not easy to make an apples-to-apples comparison.
  • Daniel Egger - Thursday, May 10, 2012 - link

    I'm really not sure you're all getting the point here with all the ARM comparison. MIPS is not even trying (at least not hard) to get into the smartphone game. MIPS is a really strong player in the consumer grade network equipment market -- think WLAN APs and routers, DSL Modems, Mifis, etc.. There's almost no ARM or x86 anywhere to be found but since networking speeds are ever increasing an architecture update is sorely needed!

    You can compare MIPS and ARM and x86 (and if you're serious about it you'd also include Freescale) as much as you'd like but the matter of fact is: Each of these architecture has at least one weak spot that disqualifies it for some market segments:
    - Most ARM based processors have lousy I/O possibilities (crappy or no network, no PCIe)
    - Most MIPS implementations do not have powerful GPUs and CPU performance is not the best
    - x86 needs too many external components and it is effectively only available from one vendor and non-synthesizable
    - Freescale (PPC) implementations also do not have powerful GPUs, are too power hungry and far too expensive for most uses
  • ganeshts - Thursday, May 10, 2012 - link

    Oh! MIPS is definitely trying to get a toehold in the smartphone market. In fact, I looked at a few of their smartphones in their HQ (all being sold in China).

    The drawbacks you indicate are not a problem with the processor IP. Rather, it is the SoC vendor's choice on what peripheral IPs are integrated along with the processor.
  • Penti - Thursday, May 10, 2012 - link

    Naw they are not really trying, the Ingenic chip the Chinese devices uses is a custom design by the Chinese firm Ingenic. Not CPUs designed by MIPS Technologies. Those has to compete with Chinese as well as cheap semi-local Taiwanese ARM-designs with ARM RTL-cores and embedded baseband too. Nothing much happening there. Not from Mips Tech standpoint any way. The MIPS SoCs can use the same third party synthesizeable IP GPUs, video engines as the ARM counterparts and so on. But don't expect much in the form of baseband modems on MIPS processors. Smartphones run fine with either x86, ARM or MIPS though. Android has support for them all. A few years ago there were some other architectures involved in the business too. Let's see if anybody uses MIPS Technologies IP cores to build phones first before shouting anything. We won't really have the same situation if you can't use RTL-cores at any fab and multiple vendors delivering solutions on that. It's hard to compete if there is just one vendor with their own custom designs. Freescale will continue their i.MX ARM line for phones/tablets. ARM is taking over the whole CE field including TVs, blu-ray players and so on too for that matter. Still some good MIPS-designs around though. But there are good designs of most stuff around. Tools and software certainly would draw you to ARM though.

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