ARM unveils hyper-efficient Cortex-A7 chip for smartphones

The chip design is due in 2013 for both entry-level and high-end smartphones

ARM Holdings has introduced the Cortex-A7, an upcoming microprocessor design that will be used in sub-US$100 smartphones, as well as in high-end smartphones as a companion chip to the more powerful Cortex-A15.

ARM designs the chips used in most of the world's top smartphones and tablets, including Apple's iPad and iPhone. The A7 will be its most energy-efficient chip design to date, ARM said, and will appear in entry-level smartphones in 2013.

But the A7 will also be used in high-end smartphones alongside the Cortex-A15, as part of a new power-saving architecture that ARM calls big.Little. With that design, high-performance tasks such as Web rendering will be performed on a Cortex-A15 processor, but tasks that require less power, such as making a call, will switch to the A7 to conserve battery power, ARM said.

By having two processors in the same phone, and allowing applications to switch between the two depending on their needs, ARM can provide longer battery life, while still providing performance when it's needed, ARM said.

The A7 is one-fifth the size of the current Cortex-A8 processor widely used in smartphones today, and consumes one-fifth the energy, according to ARM. It will be manufactured on a 28-nanometer manufacturing process, compared to a 45-nm process for the current A8. The more advanced process allows manufacturers to shrink the circuitry on the chip, which uses less power.

The A7 will appear in devices alongside the A15 when the second generation of the A15 chip ships. The first A15 devices are expected in the market in the second half of 2012.

ARM designs chips that are then manufactured by companies such as Texas Instruments and Freescale. Both those companies were at an A7 launch event in San Francisco Wednesday, along with executives from Nokia, Sprint and other partners.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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