New tech for burgeoning mid-range market
ARM has today announced hardware and software that is optimised for the mid-range Android-powered smartphone and tablet market in 2014 and 2015. ARM defines the mid-range space as devices costing between $200-$350 at retail. This market is becoming increasingly importantly globally, with ARM expecting over 500m mid-range smartphone and tablets to be sold in 2015, up from 165m in 2012. This new suite of IP encompasses three parts: the Cortex-A12 CPU, Mali-T622 GPU and Mali V-500 video chip.
Beefed-up CPU core
The new CPU, which is already sampling to key partners, uses the same v7 (32-bit) architecture as found on the incumbent Cortex-A9 but improves integer performance by up to 40 per cent whilst fitting into the same low-power thermal envelope suitable for mid-range devices. Though a little larger with respect to die size, ARM says it has been able to refine the out-of-order, multi-issue pipelined Cortex-A12 core through a general clean-up of the architecture, particularly in the way in which it accesses memory and buffers. The integrated NEON Data Engine (used to speed-up computation on multimedia files) and floating-point unit have been upgraded, as well, but ARM isn't providing hard-and-fast numbers here. Bear in mind that the base Cortex-A9 was introduced over three years ago, thus providing plenty of time for ARM to overhaul the architecture in what it optimistically terms a 'grounds-up' design.
Cortex-A12 retains ARM's big.LITTLE processing, where it can be paired with an even lower-power Cortex-A7 in an SoC environment, useful for when devices require minimal processing power for menial tasks. But as a nod towards the kinds of applications future mainstream devices will be running, ARM has added virtualisation support to the Cortex-A12's feature-set, now making it consistent with the Cortex-A15 and smaller, compatible Cortex-A7.
The key takeaway here is that ARM's incumbent mainstream CPU, Cortex-A9, doesn't have adequate horsepower to run the complex applications required from mid-range devices in the future. The Cortex-A12 core, however, is designed to scale higher in frequency and performance without burning through more power. Cortex-A12 will be manufactured by GlobalFoundries and TSMC on their respective 28nm process geometries.
Lower-power Mali Graphics and dedicated video engine
Complementing the beefed-up CPU is the all-new Mali-T622 graphics. The 28nm part, manufactured solely by TSMC, is also designed for power efficiency above all else and is touted as the 'smallest GPU compute solution on the market.' Upgraded to support OpenGL 3.0, as well as presently-supported OpenCL 1.1 and RenderScript Compute, ARM says it is 50 per cent more energy efficient than first-gen Mali T600-series devices. It is not clear if ARM is comparing like for like here, as the T622 is limited to dual processing cores while the T604 is available in a quad-core configuration. Though no numbers are posted, the consensus here is that ARM is focussing on energy efficiency more than performance, though it is pulling in some of the learnings from the second-generation Mali chips, especially the bandwidth-saving Adaptive Scalable Texture Compression (ASTC) technology.
ARM's trifecta of launches completes with the TrustZone-compatible Mali-V500 video chip. It is able to decode and encode a 1080p video stream at 60fps using a single-core implementation, rising to 4K at 120fps when using multiple cores. Providing partners with dedicated video logic enables system bandwidth to be reduced more than 50 per cent, according to ARM's performance analysis. Minimising the need for bandwidth will also lower overall device power.
Top of the POPs
The reason why ARM is offering a one-stop licensing shop for low-power CPUs, GPUs and video is simple: it wants prospective smartphone and tablet manufacturers to use its range of IP rather than opt for similar customised solutions from the likes of Qualcomm and Nvidia. To this end, the Cortex-A12 and Mali-T622 are both ARM POP IP-certified, which is a multi-faceted process by which new hardware can be brought to market quickly - a fact that is crucial in the fast-moving mobile world.
More performance, same power
ARM's new suite of IP is structured to enable mid-range devices of 2015 to enjoy the performance benefits of premium devices of 2012 while also providing robust battery life. It is clear that ARM wants to be seen as more than just a designer of low-power IP that is taken on by well-known companies such as Qualcomm, TI and Nvidia. ARM is quietly but aggressively marketing its own solutions, particularly the graphics, so it will be interesting to see if it can build on the current 20 per cent GPU share of Android smartphones.
ARM's resolutely bullish about the new technology and its implications in the mid-range space. Ian Drew, chief marketing officer and executive vice president, ARM, had the following to say during a keynote speech at Computex, Taiwan.
“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. 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.”