ARM unveils new Cortex chip core for mobile devices

Arm's latest processor core will help its partners expand their markets from mobile phones to digital media devices, according to the company.

Processor designer Arm's latest core design, the Cortex A8 processor, could be the core that allows ARM and its partners to expand their products beyond mobile phones and into the future digital home, company executives said Tuesday.

Arm is well-known in the chip industry for its processor core designs, which can be found in millions of mobile phones that use chips from companies like Texas Instruments, Samsung Electronics, and Freescale Semiconductor. The Cortex A8 will appear in several next-generation high-end mobile phones, but Arm and its partners see a much wider range of applications for the new core, said Warren East, the company's chief executive officer, in a press conference at the Arm Developers' Conference.

Chips based on the Cortex A8 will run between 600MHz and 1GHz, depending on the needs of the chip maker and the device, said John Cornish, director of product marketing at Arm. The low-power versions of the core will consume no more than 300 milliwatts of power, making them ideal for embedded devices that require long battery life or quiet operation, he said.

The faster versions of the A8 core will deliver enough performance to run consumer home media devices like DVD players, personal video recorders (PVRs), and high-definition televisions, Cornish said. ARM and its partners have long eyed this market, but their chips are primarily used in mobile phones.

Many chip companies are vying to control the future of the digital home, should that future ever arrive. The exact definition of the digital home is a little sketchy, but most companies envision a scenario where homes hum with multiple high-definition televisions connected wirelessly to each other and the Internet. DVD burners, mobile phones, PCs and refrigerators are also part of that network, depending on which vendor is giving the presentation.

Arm believes that smart mobile devices, like smart phones or portable media players, are the future of consumer computing, said Oliver Gunasekara, director of corporate business development with Arm. PCs aren't going anywhere just yet, although shipment growth is expected to slow. But there are far more mobile phones in use than PCs, and they already deliver enough performance for many people, he said.

"The vast majority of people use office documents, send e-mails, browse the Web, maybe play a few games. Most of these are low-performance applications," Gunasekara said. High-end mobile phones can already tackle these tasks, and the introduction of phones based on the Cortex A8 will set a new performance standard and reduce the costs of today's powerful phones, he said.

If Arm partners also have success with home media devices based on Arm's cores, it will allow software developers to build applications that can share data between phones and devices like PVRs, Gunasekara said. By the end of the decade, Arm hopes that about two-thirds of its cores are used in nonmobile devices like PVRs and digital televisions, East said during the press conference. Currently, about two-thirds of its cores go into mobile phones.

The Cortex A8 is one of the first Arm cores that delivers enough performance to make inroads into this market, Cornish said. Arm included its Neon multimedia acceleration engine and its Jazelle RCT Java acceleration technology on the Cortex A8 core, he said. It is also the company's first superscalar core, which means it can process more than one instruction during a single clock cycle.

Executives from TI, Freescale, Samsung and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. (better known for its Panasonic brand) joined Arm's East on stage to announce they had signed licenses for the Cortex A8 core. The companies plan to use the core in chips for mobile phones and consumer media devices that will start to become available in 2007 and 2008, they said.

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