ARM Holdings Plc (LON:ARM) is pushing hard for chipmakers to switch to the 64-bit ARMv8-A instruction set to help it with its fledgling server market push. As a result it appeared to temporarily freeze 32-bit releases, funneling useful technology into 64-bit cores — namely the Cortex-A53 and A57.
I. Mid-Range Continues to be Domain of 32-Bit
But ARM has relented somewhat, announcing this week a new 32-bit core dubbed the ARM Cortex-A17. The Cortex-A17 is the direct successor of last year’s Cortex-A12. Alternatively, it could be viewed as the new high end of the 32-bit lineup, although it lacks some of the capabilities of the 32-bit Cortex-A15.
When clocked the same, produced on the same process, and packing the same memory interface, a Cortex-A17-based system-on-a-chip (SoC) is expected to be 60 percent more efficient that the Cortex-A9r4, the predecessor to the Cortex-A12. The Cortex-A12 was billed as 40 percent more efficient than the Cortex-A9r4, so that suggests that the core is about 15 percent more efficient than the Cortex-A12.
The die size is expected to remain similar to the Cortex-A12, although it’s capable of scaling down to much smaller nodes — 14/16 nm according to an ARM slide.
Interestingly, a slide from ARM suggests that a new architecture (instruction-set-wise) is expected to land every 3-4 years. If that’s accurate, ARMv7-A has overstayed its welcome. ARMv7-A debuted in 2011, so we’d expect it to be gone by next year at the latest. But with the 32-bit ARMv7-A Cortex-A17, it seems ARM Holdings plans on clinging to 32-bit on the mid-range for a bit longer.
The Cortex-A17 — like the Cortex-A7, -A9, -A12, and -A15 — still uses the ARMv7-A instruction set, but packs many improvements that ARM Holdings has been working on in the four years since the previous generation’s high-end 32-bit core (the Cortex-A15) was announced.
The Cortex-A17 is effectively as powerful as the Cortex-A15 in most applications, yet comes close to matching the Cortex-A12 in power efficiency. It races to sleep 20 percent faster than the Cortex-A12, but is expected to fall somewhere between the Cortex-A12 and Cortex-A15 in terms of power consumption under load.
II. New GPUs, Touchscreen Coprocessors, and 4K
The Cortex-A12 and Cortex-A15 are compatible with a variety of Mali GPUs up to the Mali-T600 series. In the wild the Cortex-A15 was sold in devices with Mali-T604, T628, and T658 model GPUs. Namely Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KRX:005935) (KRX:005930) used the Mali-T604 and Mali-T628 (MP6) in its two generations of Exynos 5 system-on-a-chip designs. Huawei Technology Comp., Ltd. (SHE:002502) subsidiary HiSilicon made a Cortex-A15 design with a Mali-T658.
The Cortex-A17 bumps things to Mali-T700. Specifically, ARM Holdings suggests it is optimally paired with the Mali-T720. The Mali-T720 was announced last October and packs eight GPU cores per module, similar to the Mali-T628 and Mali-T658, which made their debut in August 2012. Mali-T720 packs a roughly 100 MHz higher core clock, though, and support for DirectX 11.1.
The Cortex-A17 retains the cache improvements of the Cortex-A12 over the Cortex-A15. It includes a larger L2 cache size (8 MB, up from 4 MB in the Cortex-A15). The L1 cache is bumped to up to 64 KB for instruction (previously 32 KB), but the data L1 cache is left at 32 KB.
The Cortex-A17 packs a pleasing assortment of coprocessors.
The Cortex-A17’s pipeline length is left unchanged from the Cortex-A12 release — “11+” stages, which is slightly shorter than the 15 stages of the Cortex-A15. It has retained support the big.LITTLE core design, which means that in an octacore, you will now have quad-Cortex-A17 cores and quad-Cortex-A7 cores. A 2+4 configuration (with two big and four LITTLE cores) is also optional.
The Cortex-A17 lacks the CCN-504 support for 4-cluster parallel computer configurations, which the Cortex-A15 offers. Likewise it lacks the Cortex-A15’s support for a large L3 cache. These features are more applicable to low-power server users; they shouldn’t be missed much by mobile users, though.
The Cortex-A12 and Cortex-A17 are both spec’d to run at 2+ GHz under full load on 28 nm chips.
The Cortex-A17 retains the Mali-V500 video processing subcore, which handles most popular formats and up to ultra HD (4K) resolutions. The new core one-ups its predecessor, though, adding the Mali-DP500, another graphics-related subcore. The “DP” stands for display processor. Rather than handle rendering, the DP handles the heavy lifting of touchscreen processing and other display duties. Alongside the Mali-DP500 is a new peripherals port I/O subcore.
The Large Physical Address Extensions (LPAE) feature on the chip means that it won’t necessary lag behind 64-bit designs memory-wise. The feature allows it to address up to 1 terabyte of DRAM, which we’re guessing is a lot more than you will see in a smartphone or tablet in the near future.
III. MediaTek A-17 Octa-Core Chip to Ship in Devices Later This Year
Some sources indicated that the Cortex-A17 designs weren’t expected to hit the market till next year. But fast-growing Taiwanese chip-designer MediaTek Inc. (TPE:2454) has other plans.
It is already is showing off the MT6595, which it says is becoming commercially available later this half, with devices by the holiday season at the latest. The octa-core chips pack four 2.2-2.5GHz A17 cores and four 1.7GHz A7s, and comes with a Rogue PowerVR Series6 GPU from Imagination Technologies Group plc (LON:IMG) (ditching ARM Holdings’ preferred Mali-T720). The chip retains the Mali-V500 for 4K video, but adds MediaTek’s own proprietary technologies to the mix to optimize video and other graphical output.
The MediaTek MT5965 makes mid-end look high-end. [Image Source: Mediatek via Engadget]
The chip packs support for both major types of LTE (TDD, FFD), support for advanced LTE (up to 150 Mbps down, 50 Mbps up), support for 30+ 3G standards, and even legacy compatibility for 2G networks, such as EDGE. It also claims to be the first chip to support multiple wireless charging standards, toeing the fence between the older, more established inductive charging market and the new resonant charging market.
It has an integrated controller for cameras up to 20 megapixels and can drive next-gen smartphone displays with resolutions up to 2560×1600 pixels. Lastly, it packs 802.11ac Wi-Fi and support for numerous international GPS positioning alternatives such as China’s Beidou and Russia’s GLONASS.
MediaTek is gunning hard for market leader Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) marketing the MT6595 as a more power efficient, more feature packed alternative to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 and 805.
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