Smaller, faster, more energy efficient — those are the goals of ARM’s Cortex A15 multi-core CPU. The processor architectures packs speeds of up to 2.5 GHz and up to four discrete cores, each with the own integer processing unit, floating point processing unit, and L1 cache. There will be 1, 2, 4, and 8 core variants.
Today the CPU market stands sharply differentiated. In one corner stands ARM king of the smartphones and energy-efficient proponent of reduced-instruction set computing (RISC). From iPhones to Androids, most smartphones on the market comes packed with an ARM processor; some come packed with 2 or more.
On the other side of the fence is Intel, whose x86 architecture is the champion of complex instruction set computing (CISC), supporting the market’s most powerful CPU designs.
Both groups are eager to take over the other’s turf. With the launch of the Cortex A15, codenamed “Eagle”, ARM is not only targeting high power smartphones, but netbooks and potentially notebooks as well. And with Intel’s impending release of an under-1 watt Atom CPU, ARM’s rival looks to invade the smartphone market.
On paper ARM’s new multi-core processor has some considerable advantages over Intel’s Atom. Atom can only execute two instructions at a time, while Cortex A15 can execute three. Atom currently can only reach 2.13 GHz (the Intel Atom Z560) — ARM’s Cortex A15 CPU is capable of higher speeds.
The Cortex A15 is also extremely aggressive when it comes to turning off parts of it that are unused. ARM claims that nearly every part of the CPU is voltage-gated. However, it takes only 10 µs for the component to go from powered-down to standby, and from standby to active. Combined, that means that the system should have continue to deliver on ARM’s legacy of being more energy efficient that x86 architectures, while not sacrificing performance.
One advantage Intel may have, though, is with memory. While the Cortex A15 adds extended memory support, for up to 1 TB of total memory, ARM has not announced what kind of memory the chip will support. Intel has already announced that its upcoming refresh of the Atom CPU will be able to make use of the more efficient DDR3, by contrast.
Like the Atom, the new ARM CPU uses advanced technologies like hardware error checking. It also brings support for virtualization to the ARM lineup for the first time. Support for fully cache coherent bus protocol — which allows multi-socket systems — has also been added for the first time.
The new architecture is slated for production at the 32 nm and 28 nm nodes.
At the moment there’s a couple key manufacturers of ARM smartphone processors. One is Samsung, which makes the CPU core of Apple’s proprietary A4 chip found in the most recent iterations of the iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch. Samsung also make the CPU for the best-selling Galaxy S smartphones. Another important player is Texas Instruments who makes the processors found in the Droid X/Droid 2 smartphones.
The announcement of the Cortex A15 licensing availability comes just as these players prepare their first dual-core Cortex A9 designs are preparing to hit the market. Leading the charge will be Samsung 1 GHz Orion CPU and Texas Instruments OMAP4430 (up to 1 GHz)/OMAP4440 (1+ GHz). Both processors are slated for Q4 2010 launch and Q1 2011
The only player in the smartphone industry who isn’t directly licensing the ARM architecture is Qualcomm which uses the ARM’s instruction sets (RISC) in its designs, but does not use the architecture itself. Qualcomm’s ARM-like CPU designs are commonly used in HTC’s Android smartphones like the HTC EVO 4G. Qualcomm has already announced that its 1.2 GHz dual-core MSM8260/MSM8660 will be available this quarter and 1.5 GHz QSD8272/QSD8672 variants will be available in Q4 2010.
Expect new designs from TI and Samsung based on the Cortex A15 core to be announced shortly, with mass availability likely set for sometime next year. And expect Qualcomm to officially unveil its own upcoming quad-core smartphone ARM-instruction set designs soon as well.
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