ARM's new Cortex cores deliver big punch in small chip

Chip designer Arm's new Cortex family of processor cores will help designers of mobile and embedded devices build powerful systems that use less memory, the company said Tuesday at its developer conference.

The Cortex M3 will be the first processor core released to Arm's partners from the new family, said Mike Muller, chief technology officer at the Cambridge, England, company. The M3 core is designed for the automotive and microcontroller markets, where extremely small and low-power chips are required, he said. It will be available to Arm's partners in the third quarter of 2005, he said.

Arm is a fabless semiconductor design company. It doesn't actually make processors, rather it designs processor cores that other companies use to create silicon chips. Arm's cores are for chips that are found in a wide number of mobile phones, personal digital assistants, and embedded devices.

Cortex processor cores will incorporate a new instruction set called Thumb-2. Current Arm cores use either the Thumb instruction set, for applications that require densely packed code, or the ARM instruction set, for performance needs, but Thumb-2 will allow chip designers to get the best of both worlds, he said.

For some applications in the embedded world, code density is a priority, said John Cornish, director of product marketing at Arm. If application code is not densely packaged, it can require additional amounts of memory. This adds cost and size to mobile or embedded devices, two factors that product designers and end users want to avoid, he said.

Arm's Thumb instruction set allowed product designers to use dense blocks of code, but system performance was affected by that decision. Thumb-2 allows those designers to get the same code density benefits from the Thumb instruction set with performance that comes very close to the raw performance enabled by the ARM instruction set, Cornish said.

Cortex processors will still include the ARM instruction set for applications that require that small extra bit of performance. The two instruction sets, Thumb-2 and ARM, can exist alongside each other without any compatibility problems, Cornish said.

Overall, users should see better performance out of smaller phones with the Cortex processor cores, Cornish said. Arm will make announcements about Cortex processor cores for mobile phone and handheld devices next year, he said.

The Cortex cores will be the first to include Arm's recently unveiled Neon technology for multimedia applications, Cornish said. Embedded processor cores such as the M3 won't ship with the Neon technology, but Neon is expected to allow handheld devices to run multiple video streams or three-dimensional graphics.

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