Half of the $111 billion microprocessor market was generated by hybrid processors that included graphics cores or other kinds of processing engines, according to a report by IMS Research. Hybrid microprocessors will not only continue to gain market share, but will also let companies like Advanced Micro Devices and Intel Corp. onto new markets, such as media tablets and smartphones.
“Through the last decade the mobile and media consumption device markets have been pivotal for this hybridization trend; Apple, Broadcom, Marvell, MediaTek, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Samsung, ST Ericsson, Texas Instruments and many other processor vendors have been offering heterogeneous application-specific processors with a microprocessor core integrating a GPU to add value within extremely confined parameters of space, power and cost. Now that smartphone sales exceed computers, and tablets explode onto the market, these hybridized application specific mobile processors represent the next largest class of processor by revenue," said Tom Hackenberg, semiconductors research manager and author of the Comprehensive Processor Report.
Hybrid microprocessors - which combine x86 cores and graphics processing units on one chip - released by AMD and Intel in 2010 and 2011 were among the most important recent product introductions. This hybridization appears to be a critical step in upping the competitive edge in computers but is also a step for these vendors into smartphones, tablets and other high performance embedded devices. Hybrid applications processor growth in smartphones and tablets are predicted with upwards of a 10% and 14% CAGR from 2011 to 2016 respectively.
“With double digit revenue growth in these markets, it’s not surprising to see major processor vendors such as AMD and Intel adopting this strategy to compete for computer market share and expending increasing research and development on embedded solutions. This hybridization is getting even more competitive with an Intel Atom-based smartphone on the market this month demonstrating that Intel is serious about entering the mobile device market by combining an x86 microprocessor, graphics licensed from Nvidia and configurable security logic as a hybrid processor triple play to capture share,” said Mr. Hackenberg.
As economic and physical barriers to shrinking geometries raise concerns of the imminent demise of Moore’s Law, semiconductor providers are turning to hybrid processors as just one of many complementary technologies for increasing system level performance and adding processor value. IMS Research has identified no less than 20 processor vendors that now provide dozens of heterogeneous processing solutions on a single chip.
Some of these converging processors have been evolving over time such as the digital signal controller, a convergence of DSPs and MCUs with the real-time processing performance of a DSP and an expanded instruction set for controller applications. In configurable processors, historically those found in FPGAs, processor vendors such as Xilinx, Altera, Microsemi and Cypress Semiconductor are actively targeting SoC ecosystems with an embedded processor core identical to and applications processor or microcontroller but enhanced with configurable logic.
“This trend is growing and spreading. Other processor vendors are now including application specific configurable logic. Intel’s Z2460 mobile processor includes a configurable security engine; Analog Devices’ BF60x DSP targets the anticipated high-growth market of embedded vision with a signal processing SoC that includes configurable logic specifically accelerating vision applications acceleration,” added Mr. Hackenberg.
Computers and media consumption devices dominate revenues in the processor market easily allowing hybrid processors to capture over half the revenues in 2011, but the trend does not stop there.
“If processor suppliers are going to continue meeting performance expectations set by Moore’s Law, clearly this is a necessary trend. Future processors may be less marketable by their top-end frequency and more by their application specific cores,” said the analyst.