Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Do you know MIPS?

You probably have heard about ARM processors. ARM seems to be everywhere and we are flooded by press announcements about new ARM-based products. This might make you think that ARM is currently the most successful processor around, especially if we think about 32 bit processors. But did you know that there exists another 32 bit processor for embedded applications? Well, yes, of course, there are other 32 bit microcontrollers that are not ARM, but there is one particular brand that you probably have as a brain for at least one of your electronic gadgets: the MIPS processor.

Like ARM, MIPS Technologies does not make silicon, but only so-called soft cores, a piece of software that describes a processor core. To use a soft core you have to licence it and put it in a chip yourself. There are many MIPS cores, not only 32 bit but also 64 bit, and there are many companies that use one of those in their products. To name a few (in random order): Sony, Realtek, Broadcom, Pioneer, Motorola, Cisco, Microchip, Hewlett-Packard, Philips, Toshiba, Canon, Samsung, JVC, Pentax, Casio, Minolta, NEC, Fujifilm, Ikanos, etc., etc. That is quite an impressive list for a processor that we hardly ever hear about, isn't it?

As you can see from the list of MIPS users, these are all big well-known companies that make many types of consumer products, which explains why you probably own at least one MIPS processor. Digital camera's, network routers, Wi-Fi access points, DSL modems, printers, netbooks, digital photo frames, DVD players, GPS receivers, game consoles and even cars, many of them contain a MIPS core. Unlike ARM, MIPS Technologies does not make a lot of noise, yet their products are everywhere.

But there is one major product in which you will not likely find a MIPS: the mobile phone. This market is almost completely dominated by ARM, but MIPS is hoping to get in thanks to Google's Android, the open source smart phone operating system. Android, developed for ARM processors, is a platform that current MIPS users might want to use too, so MIPS Technologies started porting it to their products. And then, with a bit of luck, MIPS users will start building smart phones with MIPS cores.

For the electronics hobbyist the easiest way to get started with MIPS is probably to buy a PIC32 processor from Microchip. The PIC32 is based on the MIPS32 M4K family and according to Microchip they perform better than an ARM7 clocked at 100 MHz.
If you look hard enough you can also find single board computers with MIPS processors and run for instance Linux-MIPS on it. Or hack a router and play with OpenWRT.

Share your MIPS experiences!

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