ARM Unveils Cortex-A12 Chip Design for Midrange Smartphones, Tablets

The company’s new silicon offering comes as Intel readies its latest push into the booming mobile device space now dominated by ARM.

ARM is unveiling a new processor design that is aimed at the midrange mobile device market, a move that comes as Intel is making its strongest push into the space for such devices as smartphones and tablets.

At the Computex 2013 show in Taiwan June 3, ARM officials announced the Cortex-A12 processor, which falls between the Cortex-A15 aimed at high-end devices and the Cortex-A7, which targets entry-level products. Midrange devices give consumers some high-end features at a lesser cost—in the $200 to $350 range—and are increasingly in demand, according to ARM officials, who predict that 580 million midrange smartphones and tablets will be sold in 2015.

That compares with about 200 million sold this year, they said.

"Mobile users expect a range of devices at different price points and for a mid-range mobile experience to include some high end mobile features," Ian Drew, chief marketing officer and executive vice president with ARM, said in a statement. “With a billion smartphones predicted to ship in 2013 and tablets projected to out-ship notebook PCs, device-makers can now provide quality, high-performance mobile products with the features that matter the most, at a range of price points.”

Along with the new CPU design, ARM also announced the Mali-T622 graphics technology and Mali-V500 video encode/decode chip.

ARM creates basic system-on-a-chip (SoC) designs that vendors like Samsung and Qualcomm license and add their own features to. ARM-based chips are found in the bulk of smartphones and tablets on the market, although Intel continues to make aggressive moves with its x86-based chips in hopes of gaining traction in the booming space.

ARM officials expect devices with the new Cortex-A12 design to be released starting in 2014. It will come as demand for the midrange market increases, according to Stefan Rosinger, CPU product manager for ARM.

“What becomes clear when looking at mobile devices is that we are seeing segmentation into multiple markets, which is an opportunity for growth for ARM partners,” Rosinger wrote in a post on the ARM blog. “Premium smartphones and tablets receive a great deal of attention, but it is the entry-level and mid-range markets that are expected to grow the fastest over the next years.”

According to the company, the Cortex-A12 will offer a 40 percent improvement in performance over the current Cortex-A9 and high-end features such as virtualization technology. The design, for dual- or quad-core chips, also is optimized for energy efficiency, with support for ARM’s big.LITTLE processing technology, which was first introduced in 2011. The big.LITTLE architecture is now being used with the Cortex-A15 and Cortex-A7, with both being used on the same SoC, with each being used depending on the workloads. Basic tasks like social media and calling leverage the lower power Cortex-A7, while more compute-intense workloads, such as navigation and gaming, use the Cortex-A15.

The Cortex-A12 will be used with the Cortex-A7 in a similar fashion, according to ARM officials.

The Mali-T622 GPU will bring a 50 percent improvement in energy efficiency over the current Mali-T600 products, while the Mali-V500 technology will help reduce system bandwidth needs by more than 50 percent.

Intel has spent the past several years improving the energy efficiency of its power-hungry chips, which are found in the majority of PCs and servers on the market today, and officials believe 2013 will be a key year in their efforts to grab a larger share of the mobile device market.

The company at Computex will release the first of its 22-nanometer Core “Haswell” SoCs, which will offer strong gains in performance and power efficiency and as much as a 50 percent improvement in graphics capabilities. The chips will be aimed at a range of devices, from tablets to notebooks to convertible and hybrid products.

At the same time, Intel later this year will release the first of its low-power Atom chips based on the upcoming “Silvermont” microarchitecture, which officials said will offer big gains in performance and power efficiency and meet or exceed ARM designs in both areas, according to company officials. Devices with the new Atom SoCs could start hitting the market late this year.

The mobile space has been a focus of Intel’s for years, and new CEO Brian Krzanich has said it will be a priority for the company. Within days of taking over the top job in May, Krzanich reorganized the company and took control of the Intel Architecture Group, which is responsible for chip designs. In a memo to employees, he also said the company will move more quickly and boldly to address the rapid changes in the industry, adding that “our business faces significant challenges, and we simply must continue to execute while finalizing our future strategy.”