ARM Unveils Cortex-A35 SoC for Low-Cost Smartphones

The company is aiming the chip design at entry-level devices for what officials say is the next billion smartphone users.

ARM Unveils Cortex-A35 SoC

SANTA CLARA, Calif.—ARM, which already owns the bulk of the global smartphone market, is putting its focus on emerging markets like Brazil, India and China with the introduction of a low-power chip that offers 64-bit processing capabilities while driving down power consumption.

At the ARM TechCon 2015 show here Nov. 10, CTO Mike Muller announced the Cortex-A35, the first of what company officials said will be a family of low-power, highly-efficient 64-bit chips aimed at smartphones and other mobile devices as the vendor looks to extend its reach in a global smartphone market that is seeing slowing growth as markets like North America become saturated.

However, emerging markets like India, Brazil and parts of Asia-Pacific are seeing shipment numbers expand, with people embracing lower-cost and lower-power entry- and mid-level devices. Even in China—the world's largest market for smartphones with 30 percent of the market, growth has slowed due to saturation—though there is still demand for such systems that run from $50 to $200. It's those lower-cost smartphones that ARM is targeting with the Cortex-A35, Muller said.

The market for entry-level phones will grow 8 percent a year between now and 2020, by which time more than 1 billion entry-level devices will ship, he said.

"There is a real opportunity in these devices as well as the services that go into that," Muller said, adding that it has been "neglected" by chip makers in favor of higher-end devices.

ARM already offers a number of systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) based on its 64-bit ARMv8-A architecture, and they're gaining traction in the market. According to Muller, half of the smartphones that will ship this year will be powered by ARMv8-A-based chips. The Cortex-A35 will bring 64-bit capabilities to a market where most chips are 32-bit.

"We are bringing 64-bit capabilities to the next billion smartphone users," Ian Smythe, director of marketing programs for ARM's CPU Group, said during a briefing with journalists before the TechCon show.

The introduction of the Cortex-A35 is an indication of the ongoing maturation of the smartphone space, according to Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy. Where before the Cortex-A7 or Cortex-A5 would have been enough for most smartphone makers and end users, there is now demand for more choices around everything from price to power efficiency to cost, and ARM and OEMs need to address that demand.

"As the market matures, you have more segmentation," Moorhead told eWEEK.

He also said the new SoC design is an indication of growing competition in the market, not necessarily just from Intel and its low-power Atom platform, but also from such vendors as Qualcomm and Apple. ARM doesn't build the chips; instead it designs the architectures and then licenses those designs to chip manufactures. Some, like Qualcomm, Apple and Samsung, license the architecture and build their own chips based on it, creating a much more customized SoC. Others license the entire design, which Moorhead said means more money for ARM.

Having more design options gives manufacturers greater choice and, hopefully, makes some of them more likely to license the entire design.

"ARM makes more money when they do more of the work" in developing an SoC, he said. "In a way, they're kind of in competition with their own licensees."

According to ARM officials, the Cortex-A35 offers significant gains in performance and power efficiency over other ARM designs, including 10 percent lower power and 6 to 40 percent improved performance over the Cortex-A7. In addition, when compared with the Cortex-A53—which had been ARM's most efficient 64-bit SoC design—the Cortex-A35 brings a 25 percent smaller core and 32 percent lower power, and is 25 percent more efficient.

The Cortex-A35 also can be leveraged in ARM big.Little SoC designs, which offer users both high performance and high energy efficiency—depending on workload needs—by combining high-end (like the Cortex-A72 or Cortex-A57) and low-power cores in a single chip. It also can improve the performance of 32-bit applications.

The SoC design also will offer chip makers significant scalability, enabling them to build chips that hold one to four cores, with the single-core chips running at 100MHz and consuming less than 6 milliwatts. A four-core SoC would hit 1.0GHz and consume 90 milliwatts.

ARM officials expect devices using the Cortex-A35-based SoCs to begin hitting the market by the end of next year.