ARM's New Cortex Targets Midrange Smartphones, Tablets

MediaTek leverages the new ARM designs for eight-core SoC that will bring high-end features to entry-level smartphones.

ARM, which last year unveiled the Cortex-A12 chip design aimed at midrange smartphones and tablets, is introducing the next iteration that officials expect will be in mobile devices next year.

ARM on Feb. 11 announced the Cortex-A17, which officials said will bring high-end features to mobile devices at midrange prices and will offer up to a 60 percent performance improvement over the Cortex-A9 architecture, which is entering its sixth year.

The company's announcement also includes a new graphics technology and video processor solution that, combined with the Cortex-A17, will not only boost features in midrange mobile devices, but also will be used in such systems as smart TVs and over-the-top media devices.

"[The Cortex-A17 is] the most efficient mid-range mobile solution for smartphones and tablets ARM has ever delivered, essentially delivering a new mid-range performance point for 2015 (and beyond) that matches today's high-end phones and tablets at a mid-range price point," Stefan Rosinger, technical marketing engineer at ARM, said in a post on the company blog.

One chip vendor already is leveraging the Cortex-A17 design. MediaTek on Feb. 11 announced its MT6595 system-on-a-chip (SoC), an eight-core chip that includes 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) support and runs ARM's big.Little architecture that combines four Cortex-A17 cores and four lower-power Cortex-A7 cores.

"The MT6595 will enable our customers to deliver premium products with advanced features to a growing market," Jeffrey Ju, general manager of MediaTek's Smartphone Business Unit, said in a statement.

SoCs based on ARM designs and made by the likes of Samsung, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments are found in almost 95 percent of the mobile devices on the market. ARM officials, while discussing the company's fourth-quarter financial numbers, said earlier this month that the company's partners had shipped 2.9 billion ARM-based chips during the period, and more than 10 billion for all of 2013.

Intel is looking to gain traction in the booming mobile chip market by aggressively improving the performance and energy efficiency of its low-power Atom chips, which power some smartphones and tablets that run Microsoft's Windows and Google's Android mobile operating system.

However, ARM officials expect significant improvements in the Cortex-A17 designs and are looking to take advantage of the expected growth in midrange mobile devices. ARM's Rosinger said the company has seen significant demand in the midrange and entry-level segments, particularly in emerging markets such as Eastern Europe, Latin America and some countries in Asia. More than 500 million midrange devices will ship in 2015, and the midrange will eclipse the premium segment within two years, he said.

"Part of that massive mid-range growth is based on the ARM Cortex-A9 processor, the most popular Cortex process in smartphones today, with over 1 [billion] units across all markets shipped since its introduction in 2008," Rosinger.

IDC analysts in November 2013 noted that while shipments of smartphones continue to grow—from 1 billion last year to almost 1.7 billion by 2017—the average selling price is falling, an indication that entry-level and midrange devices are driving much of the growth.

"The key driver behind smartphone volumes in the years ahead is the expected decrease in prices," Ramon Llamas, research manager with IDC's mobile phone team, said in a statement at the time the report was released. "Particularly within emerging markets, where price sensitivity and elasticity are so important, prices will come down for smartphones to move beyond the urban elite and into the hands of mass-market users."

Vendors are taking notice. Broadcom officials on Feb. 10 announced new chipset designs they said will help bring 4G LTE connectivity to low-cost smartphones.

ARM's Cortex-A17 will support the company's big.Little architecture, which was introduced in 2011 as a way of addressing the sometimes conflicting user demands for more performance and longer battery life by pairing low-power Cortex-A7 cores with higher performing cores, in this case the Cortex-A17.

The Mali-T720 is designed to bring a cost-efficient graphics offering to entry-level Android devices that includes capabilities now found high-end devices, including support for Open GLES 3.0, OpenCL and RenderScript.