ARM expects first Cortex-A15 devices in late 2012

The processor will first appear in smartphones and tablets

Smartphones and tablets will be the first devices to use ARM's upcoming Cortex-A15 processor, and will be available starting late 2012 or early 2013, an ARM executive said this week.

ARM's partners will initially use dual-core processors, and later on quad-core parts, in mobile devices, said James Bruce, the U.S. mobile segment manager at ARM Holdings.

Announced in September, the Cortex-A15 can run at speeds of up to 2.5GHz and stretch to 16 cores in certain configurations.

ARM processors go into most of the world's smartphones and tablets, and the company licenses its designs to chip makers such as Nvidia, Samsung, Texas Instruments and Qualcomm.

Many new smartphones and tablets such as Motorola's Xoom and LG's G-Slate include dual-core processors derived from ARM's current Cortex-A9 design. Texas Instruments and Nvidia have already licensed the Cortex-A15 design for future mobile chips. Nvidia said it may use the design to develop CPU cores for PCs and servers that will be able to run Microsoft's upcoming Windows OS.

Smartphones and tablets remain top priority for ARM in processor design, though partners can use CPUs to fit their needs, Bruce said.

ARM has already said it won't make its presence felt in the server market until 2014. The company also wants to minimize its focus on "legacy" devices, and instead go after new opportunities in the mobile market, Bruce said, adding that smartphones in the future could replace PCs as primary computing devices. Smartphones already have ports to connect to large-screen TVs, and keyboards and mice could be easily connected via Bluetooth.

"The interesting thing in the smartphone space is the small screen coming to the big screen," Bruce said.

Devices that fill the gap between smartphones and PCs are emerging. Motorola's Atrix 4G smartphone, which runs on a dual-core ARM processor, can be plugged into a dock with a screen and a keyboard to give it laptop-like functionality. The emergence of such devices will continue as ARM partners experiment with new mobile form factors, Bruce said.

Intel last week said that it would catch up with ARM on power consumption by 2013 when the company starts manufacturing smartphone and tablet chips using the 22-nanometer process.

But as Intel draws closer, ARM partners won't sit still, Bruce said. Companies such as Qualcomm have already announced plans to move to the 28-nm process, which could help ARM maintain its power advantage, Bruce said.

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