PowerVR GPUs: Bringing OpenGL ES graphics to mobile for over ten years

PowerVR Series4 and Series5 GPUs, OpenGL ES 1.x and the beginning of mobile graphics (part 1)

No matter if you are a developer, hardware engineer, system architect, or have a passion for multimedia and technology, you can’t but wonder at how much GPUs and graphics APIs like OpenGL ES have evolved over the past ten years in the mobile and embedded market.

With a history in the PC and console space, PowerVR GPUs have been leading the way for the adoption of high-end graphics in mobile and consumer devices by delivering a fully optimized solution that efficiently and fully supports the widest range of graphics and compute standards, while always keeping power consumption at a minimum.

In this two-part article, I will attempt to briefly summarize the history of PowerVR and the breakthrough innovations in our graphics architecture that translated into rapid API adoption and exponential growth in performance efficiency with every new generation of mobile and embedded devices.

PowerVR Series4 (MBX and MBX Lite): The rise of mobile graphics

Launched in early 2001, the PowerVR Series4 GPU IP family was the catalyst for Imagination’s extraordinary success in the mobile and embedded space.

A revolutionary architecture designed from the ground up to deliver both high performance for mobile applications while always maintaining low power consumption, the PowerVR Series4 family was an early adopter of OpenGL ES 1.1. The PowerVR MBX family provided desktop-level graphics functionality, including skinning, full-screen anti-aliasing, and support for 32-bit precision internally, transform and lighting, Dot3 per-pixel lighting, and curved surface support.

PowerVR Series4 MBX GPU block diagram | OpenGL ES 1.1PowerVR Series4 GPU IP block diagram

Furthermore, Imagination was the first company to recognize the importance of texture compression in mobile. We tackled this system-wide problem early on by introducing PVRTC support across all PowerVR Series4 GPUs. Our PVRTC technology is one of the most efficient and widely deployed texture compression standards available to developers. It is used today by game engines and other 3D applications across a range of platforms and operating systems, including Linux, Android, iOS, BlackBerry OS or Windows.

The PowerVR Series4 (MBX) family of mobile and embedded 3D and 2D GPU cores included:

  • PowerVR MBX with best area/performance for power-critical handheld devices and mainstream set-top boxes;
  • PowerVR MBX Lite for the most power-critical, cost-sensitive, entry-level mobile applications.

Alongside PowerVR MBX, we offered hardware based transform and lighting in a fully programmable vertex shader way thanks to the PowerVR Vertex Geometry Processor (VGP), a high-performance, floating-point SIMD unit. PowerVR VGP was a market leading, multi GFLOPS programmable engine that provided a much better solution to the competition’s CPU based processing or fixed function coprocessors.

Designed for optimal 3D Transformation and Lighting (T&L), with an instruction set carefully designed to allow common T&L operations to be performed in a minimal number of instructions, the PowerVR VGP offloaded these highly computer intensive tasks from the host CPU.

The PowerVR Series5: A unified architecture for the mobile mass market

The PowerVR Series5 family of GPU IP cores have been designed to address the ever expanding mobile market from low cost feature-rich mobile multimedia products to very high performance consoles and computing devices. With a level of scalability from one to eight pipelines and beyond, PowerVR SGX brings fully compliant OpenGL ES 2.0 shader-based graphics capability to mobile and consumer platforms, thanks to the unique Universal Scalable Shader Engine (USSE).

PowerVR Series5 SGX GPU block diagram | OpenGL ES 2.0PowerVR Series5 GPU IP block diagram

The PowerVR SGX family passed as Khronos OpenGL ES 2.0 compliant in June 2008. It was the first graphics technology to achieve compliance with this key graphics API and continues to ship in significant volume in mobile and embedded applications.

Members of the PowerVR Series5 family include:

  • PowerVR SGX520, a solution optimised to deliver optimal, entry-level OpenGL ES 2.0 performance point in minimal silicon area
  • PowerVR SGX530, SGX531, SGX535 featured an upgraded 128-bit internal bus architecture and other related enhancements to maximise performance. Right after their launch, these GPUs proved to be an ideal solution for a number of extremely popular SoCs for smartphones and tablets, allowing the industry to move towards ever higher resolution displays and high frame rate applications.
  • PowerVR SGX540, with double the pipelines of the already blisteringly-powerful PowerVR SGX531. It has been widely adopted by a number of our licensees thanks to its rich feature set and the possibility of achieving higher clock speeds by featuring many system level architectural enhancements.

OpenGL ES 1.1: mobile graphics are born

You can now find Imagination’s PowerVR SGX GPU IP in every consumer electronics product from mass market smartphones and affordable tablets running Android, to Windows 8-based tablets, ultrabooks and hybrids, wearables such as Google Glass and smartwatches, or even kitchen appliances and printers.

The launch of OpenGL ES 1.1 brought fully hardware-accelerated, mobile optimized graphics to millions of end users worldwide. Providing enhanced functionality, improved image quality and optimizations to increase performance while reducing memory bandwidth usage to save power, OpenGL ES 1.1 was rapidly adopted by operating system vendors and developers as one of the key graphics APIs for cross-platform applications.

OpenGL ES 10th anniversary BoF

This year marks the 10-year anniversary of OpenGL ES and Khronos is celebrating this at SIGGRAPGH 2013 with a BoF Blitz after-party at the Hilton Anaheim California, Ballroom A&B, on July 24th. We thought we’d mark the occasion with a little celebration of our own by creating the infographic below. It shows the various OpenGL ES versions within the last decade, our PowerVR GPU announcements and some of the most iconic products that integrated the latest generation GPU IP from Imagination.


We are one of the founding members of Khronos and continue to work closely with them to make sure our PowerVR GPU IP cores and drivers are optimized to enable the latest OpenGL ES standards across all our graphics families. Through Imagination’s commitment to support a variety of graphics and compute standards from the Khronos Group for current and future generations of the PowerVR GPU IP family, our partners are able to design flexible system architectures and deploy them across a wide range of operating systems and market applications.

Do you still own a device with a PowerVR Series4 GPU? What do you think of the new wave of upcoming wearables integrating PowerVR SGX-based platforms? Leave us a comment in the box below and check out the second part of the article that focuses on PowerVR Series5XT and Series6.

Make sure you keep up with the latest developments on PowerVR by following us on Twitter (@GPUCompute, @PowerVRInsider and @ImaginationTech) and subscribing to our blog feed.

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