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DSP: making a comeback in mobile apps

Well, last week I blogged about ARM processors ruling the world, especially from a consumer product perspective.

But not so fast, maybe.

EE Times had a recent article that observed that “there’s no such thing as ‘game over’ for the mobile apps processor battle.” And then talked about the resurgence of our old pal the DSP in the mobile market.

The new differentiators cropping up for mobile devices are the always-on mobile SoC that can be promptly awakened by voice activation, sensor fusion, multi-channel surround-sound audio, eye-tracking, post video processing, and more. An additional wrinkle is that many mobile SoCs are also being pitched as the brain that drives an automaker’s in-vehicle infotainment system.

Such changes are prompting apps processor designers to rethink DSP, GPU, and CPU cores, giving birth to a new generation of “light” apps processors, designed as co-processors to be used in conjunction with a main apps processor. Many designers are also intent on beefing up the performance of their own apps processors, by re-crafting graphics cores (e.g., Nvidia’s Tegra K1) and/or adding more processor cores (e.g., MediaTek’s octa-core apps processor).

Qualcomm is leading the pack here with its Hexagon DSP core, but others are likely to follow.

One key here is SoCs with small MCU’s built-in. We are seeing the semiconductor manufacturers include more and more of these in their silicon – where it used to be just one or two. In some of its products, TI has included programmable real-time units (PRUs) that offload the more power-hungry CPU or DSP for low power modes, in which background activities can be run (e.g., location tracking, heart-rate monitoring). The main DSP (or ARM) can be put to sleep, and get woken up when the PRU determines that it needs to be.

Just for the record, we have a couple of SoMs based on ARM processors – TI’s OMAP-L138 (dual core DSP and ARM) and the AM335x (ARM only), so you may be hearing more from us (and TI) on PRUs.