Arm unveils chip to make smartphones faster, cooler

Arms race: firm says new Cortex chip maintains edge over Intel's upgraded Atom

Arm Holdings has introduced a processor for smartphones and other devices that it says will be cheaper, and more powerful and energy-efficient than the two ARM processors it will supplant. The company expects that the new chip will also help it ward off incursions from Intel's rival Atom chip.

ARM announced the chip Wednesday at its annual ARM TechCon3 conference in California. The new Cortex-A5 processor will come with one to four processor cores running at up to 1GHz. Based on an efficient 40-nanometer design, the Cortex-A5's cores will run up to 3 times faster than each core in the company's low-end ARM9 product, according to the Cambridge, England-based firm.

The Cortex-A5 also consumes one-third the power of ARM's mid-range ARM11 processor, meaning that it can extend a device's battery life "by at least double, if not more," said Travis Lanier, a product manager at Arm. The manufacturing cost of the new chip is about one-fifth what it costs to make the ARM9, which has been installed in more than 5 billion cellphones and other devices, or the ARM11, which is used in Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch.

The Cortex-A5 is due to be released to ARM's 600-plus manufacturing partners in December, the company said.

Meanwhile, Intel is readying a 32-nanometer version of the popular Atom netbook processor . The 32nm chip will be the first "low-leakage" version of the Atom, and is expected to be similar to the current Arm CPUs in terms of compactness and power efficiency, making it suitable for mobile phones and tiny devices.

Arm says that the company expects the Cortex-A5 to maintain its edge over the Atom. "This is a very, very tiny processor," Lanier said. "It will be many generations before the Atom can compete with it."

The Cortex-A5 will be able to run all of the software that runs on the other Arm Cortex processors -- the Cortex-A8 and the Cortex-A9, Lanier said. The supported software includes Ubuntu Linux, Android and the Firefox browser.

The Cortex-A5 also supports technology from Neon multimedia technology that can be used to improve video performance.

Arm expects the Cortex-A5 to be used in low-end to mid-range cellphones, smart appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and clothes dryers and digital picture frames. Such devices should begin to appear with Cortex-A5 chips in 2011, Lanier said. At that point, the ARM9 and ARM11 chips will begin phasing out.

The Cortex-A8 and Cortex-A9 will continue to be Arm's mid-range and high-end processors. The company recently announced that its dual-core Cortex-A9 will be able to run as fast as 2 GHz, enabling it to run in ARM-based netbooks, or smartbooks, laptops and even desktop PCs, says Lanier.

Lanier said that the Cortex-A5 will come in two flavors: a general-purpose processor running at 1 GHz that consumes about 80 milliwatts; and a low-power, very efficient chip that runs at 500 MHz.

"There's almost no [electrical] leakage," Lanier said. That is more suitable for phones, as battery life tends to be key.

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Eric Lai

Computerworld (US)
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