ARM Unveils New Chip for Smartphones in 2016

The Cortex-A72 processor will bring performance and efficiency gains as users look to do more with their mobile devices, ARM officials say.


ARM, whose low-power mobile chip designs are found in more than 95 percent of the world's smartphones, is introducing new processor core and graphics technologies aimed at improving the performance and power efficiency of the next generation of mobile devices.

ARM officials introduced the new suite of technologies Feb. 3, saying they expect devices sporting systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) that leverage the new IP to hit the market in 2016. Already, more than 10 chip makers—including Rockchip, MediaTek and HiSilicon—have licensed the technology, according to Ian Ferguson, vice president of segment marketing at ARM.

The foundation of the suite—which is aimed at premium smartphones—is the Cortex-A72 processor, a 64-bit core that will increase the performance of smartphones by 50 times over devices that came to market five years ago, Ferguson said during a Webcast press conference from San Francisco. It will use 75 percent less power than current chips while running the same workloads, he said.

A key part to the Cortex-A72's story is that it will be made in plants that will leverage the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.'s (TSMC) 16-nanometer FinFET manufacturing process, which will mean thinner, more powerful and more power-efficient smartphone designs.

Other parts of ARM's suite of technologies include the new Mali T880 GPU, which officials said will enable the devices it powers to run console-quality computer games and render high-quality visuals, including up to 4K resolution. ARM's new CoreLink CCI-500 interconnect connects the various parts of the chip together. In addition, the Cortex-A72—formerly code-named "Maya"—will partner with the Cortex-A53 in ARM's big.Little configuration, which enables the device to choose power efficiency or performance, depending on the workload.

ARM doesn't build chips. Instead, it creates an architecture that manufacturers like Samsung, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Nvidia, Rockchip and MediaTek, among others, license and then put their own technologies atop of before selling them to device OEMs. That model has made the ARM architecture the dominant technology that powers most of the billion or so smartphones that are sold every year, and many of the world's tablets.

However, ARM is looking to expand the reach of its technology beyond smartphones and into new devices, including those that are part of the rapidly growing Internet of things (IoT). Cisco Systems officials predict the number of devices in the IoT will grow from 25 billion in 2014 to more than 50 billion by 2020, and a broad range of tech vendors—including ARM and its manufacturing partners as well as rival Intel—are moving quickly to gain traction in the market.

ARM's Ferguson said manufacturers should not look at the Cortex-A72 as a chip that can only be used in smartphones and tablets.

"There is nothing to stop our processor from being put into any computing node," he said.

That said, Ferguson said the new technologies were developed with the idea that smartphones will continue to evolve into the primary computing device for many users. The global PC market saw shipments decline sharply in 2012 and 2013 as more consumers and businesses users turned their attention to tablets and smartphones. However, the PC market stabilized in 2014,with some analysts saying the decline in the market slowed and others saying there actually were small gains in shipments.

The analysts from places like Gartner and IDC said reasons for the PC market's rebound were the saturation in the tablet space and that users are continuing to use their PCs for content creation and their mobile devices for content consumption.

However, Ferguson said people are increasingly looking to their smartphones to fulfill both roles as screen sizes increase and productivity apps are added. Gaming also is moving from consoles to smartphones, and new applications—such as those connected with 3D printing—also could be used on mobile devices.

"We see more and more interest in using the phone as the primary computing platform," he said. "We’re going to see more and more people creating content [on their smartphones] rather than just consuming it."