It looks like the stage is set for a big handheld console showdown in 2010. Endangered by rising sales of games  for iPhone and OTA downloads instead of conventional cartridge/memory card games, both Nintendo and Sony have to prove that their hardware isn’t going on the path of Amiga [proprietary gaming "PC" using Motorola’s CPU architecture from 1980s and 1990s], but rather can live in today’s connected world.

After we disclosed the relationship between Nintendo and nVidia on the next-generation hardware, we learned that handheld-refresh cycle is in full speed over at Sony as well. If we take a look at PlayStation Portable hardware [both conventional and the PSP Go] since launch, we can see that one problems that Sony has is the use of different hardware over the course of lifetime. Sony released four PSP handhelds mostly relying on 32-bit MIPS R4000 CPU core with 8MB eDRAM as the "Media Engine" clocked at 222 MHz [later unlocked to 333 MHz, PSP Go can overclock to 480 MHz], while the graphics subsystem relies on a proprietary chip featuring 2MB of eDRAM, clocked at 166 MHz.

Naturally, this hardware doesn’t exactly have the compute power to tackle the last generation of cellphones, and with the 2010 phones offering HD output capabilities, the time was up for current generation of hardware. Sony begun work on PSP2 back in 2008 and unofficially announced the selection of graphics hardware: on November 24th, 2008 Imagination Technologies ran a press release stating that "Imagination Technologies Group plc has signed a license agreement with a new partner, a major international consumer electronics company, for a high-performance forthcoming member of Imagination’s POWERVR SGX graphics processor family."
The client, "major international Consumer Electronics Company" was no other than Sony Corporation and the chip at hand are known as PowerVR SGX543. On CES 2009, Imagination Technologies introduced the PowerVR Series SGX architecture and on March 16th, 2009 Imagination Technologies ran a press release introducing the details of this part. Even though the introduction was low-key and wasn’t picked up by tech media, seven months later we finally saw what the architecture can to.

The power of this chip is quite impressive, easily beating integrated graphics parts on PC platform. For instance, it flat-out beats the living daylights out of PowerVR core integrated in Intel’s Atom platform. According to the sources close to heart of the company, the SGX543 for PlayStation Portable 2 can reach theoretical performance of desktop graphics cards released during this year, an impressive feat indeed. Imagination Technologies recently passed the 200 million shipped SoC chips milestone, but with PSP2 deal, that number is sure to grow by at least 30-40 million units more.

Now, the interesting part about the PowerVR is that it is a true MIMD [Multiple Instruction-Multiple Data http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MIMD ] architecture. In their press releases, ImgTech is bragging about the capabilities of the "GP-GPU", but even if we take a look at the specifications with the cold head, a lot of surprises are in store. The multi-core design is available in dual, quad, octal and sedec-core variants [SGX543MP2, SGX543MP4, SGX543MP8, SGX543MP16], and they’re by no means slouches.

For instance, a quad-core version SGX543MP4 at only 200 MHz frequency delivers 133 million polygons per second and offers fill-rate of four billion pixels per second [4GPixel/s], in the range of GeForce 8600 cards. For that matter, 4GPixel/s runs 40nm GeForce GT210 [2.5 GPixel/s] into the ground. Given that GeForce GT210 runs at 589 MHz for the core and 1.4 GHz for shaders. Since PowerVR SGX543 targets handheld devices, there is no saying what the performance plateau is.
An eight core SGX543MP8 at 200 MHz delivers 266 million polygons and eight billion pixels per second, while faster clocked version, for instance, at 400 MHz would deliver 532 million polygons and 16 billion pixels per second. 16 billion pixels per second equal GeForce GTX 260-216, for instance.

After analyzing the performance at hand, it is no wonder that Sony chose to go with PowerVR for the next-generation PlayStation Portable. While the exact details of the SoC are still in question, our take is that Sony could go with quad-core setup at 400MHz [8GPixel/s], paired with a dual-core CPU based on ARM Cortex architecture. This would put Sony direct in line against Tegra-powered Nintendo DS2, PowerVR-based Apple’s iPhone 4G and Palm Pre2.

With all the major players selecting ARM cores for their current or next-generation products, it looks like the second decade of 21st century will be marked with the battle royal between ARM and x86 architecture in the handheld space [with the advantage firmly in ARM’s hands]. Given the installed user base of 15 billion ARM-powered devices and a plan to ship 15 billion more in the next five years, it looks like Intel x86 and AVX will have to wait until 2015 to get the chance to compete against ARM, PowerVR, Mali and GeForce IP, as far as handheld space goes.

When it comes to Sony PlayStation Portable Gen2, selecting PowerVR was the right way to go and since the company unofficially stated [but officially acted] that they don’t give a darn about backwards compatibility [take a look at PlayStation 1-2-3 and PSP-PSP Go], programmers will just have to get used to utilizing the ARM core and PowerVR SGX graphics to the max.

We also learned of the PSP2 planned release date, but in order to protect our sources, we’ll keep that information for another story. Let’s just say it is within the next 12 months.

The Battle Royal for handheld gaming 2010

Apple iPhone 3G s / 4G = ARM Cortex + PowerVR SGX
HTC = ARM Cortex + PowerVR
Microsoft Zune HD = ARM11 + GeForce 6
Nintendo DS2 = ARM Cortex + GeForce 9
Nokia platform = ARM11 only
Palm Pre 2 = ARM Cortex + PowerVR SGX
RIM BlackBerry = ARM9 only
Samsung = ARM Cortex + PowerVR SGX
Sony PSP2 = ARM ? + PowerVR SGX

Feel free to let us know if we left somebody important out.