Britain's ARM has unveiled a chip design that offers the same computing power as the silicon in today's high-end smartphones, but uses five times less energy, and which it says will enable sub-$100 devices to be on the market by 2013. The Cambridge-based company, whose architecture dominates the smartphone and tablet sector, said the new Cortex-A7 chip was its most energy efficient apps processor to date. “This core will enable apps processors at similar levels of performance to what you find in a high-end smartphone today, but in a couple of years that level of performance will be in a lower-end, and therefore a lower cost smartphone,” Chief Executive Warren East said. “The Cortex-A7 … will help connect the next billion people in developing markets.” The power efficiency, which stems from the 28 nanometer design, will also benefit users of top-end smartphones because the Cortex-A7 is compatible with ARM's newest high-power Cortex-A15 processor, he said, and they can be deployed on a single chip.
Better chips for cheaper phones
The concept, called Big.LITTLE, means the A7 is used for simple tasks like social networking and when more power is needed, say for navigation or augmented reality, the higher power A15 processor kicks in. Switching is handled by technology on the chip and is largely independent of the operating system. Used together, the processors will offer power savings of up to 70 percent on today's top-end smartphones, ARM said.
East told Reuters that Cortex-A7 would help ARM and its chipmaking partners stay ahead of Intel in terms of efficiency. Intel's architecture powers most of the world's PCs, but the U.S. company has struggled in mobile devices. However, it unveiled a new “tri-gate” manufacturing technology, called Ivy Bridge, in May that could deliver the electricity savings needed to gain ground in smartphones. “Intel made a step forward when they talked about tri-gate technology,” East said. “Actually those finfets (tri-gate technology) will be available for people to build ARM processors on as well because all the semi-conductor process people are moving in that direction. “But at the same time we are moving on a different axis of increased efficiency, and we decided it was time to talk about more than incremental improvements and talk about multiple.”
ARM's architecture is licensed by its chipmaking partners, and it receives a royalty for each chip shipped in devices ranging from Apple's iPhone to electronic toys and air conditioners. It has already signed up 10 partners for Cortex-A7 including Samsung and Texas Instruments, East said, and there was considerable overlap with the 14 licensees to date of the Cortex-A15. “The fact is because they are designed to work together they have more functionality so it enables us to charge a higher royalty rate,” he said. He declined to comment on whether Apple, which licenses ARM's technology for the A5 chip in the iPad2 and iPhone 4S, would adopt the two “non-identical twins” processor concept. In the near-term, semiconductor companies are looking forward to the important holiday season with some trepidation as cash-strapped consumers cut spending.
East said ARM was not immune to the pressure, but it benefited from exposure to sectors, such as smartphones, that were still growing strongly. “There are countries that are having a tough time … and we are seeing those effects,” he said. “But ARM is exposed to structural growth areas. We are seeing growth in enterprise, growth in industrial, and we are actually seeing growth in consumer as well because we are exposed to these exciting areas that are growing.”