The Cambridge chip design company ARM has unveiled a chip design that it say uses could mean cheaper smartphones with battery lives five times longer by 2013. It also thinks they will enable cheaper devices, with smartphones easily costing less than $100 (£60) by that time.
Already Broadcom, Compal, Freescale, HiSilicon, LG Electronics (SEO: 066570), Linaro, OK Labs, QNX, Redbend, Samsung, Sprint (NYSE: S), ST-Ericsson (NSDQ: ERIC) and Texas Instruments have publicly signed up to support the technologies. ARM could not say whether Apple (NSDQ: AAPL), which has a licence to build chips using the ARM architecture and deploys them in its iOS devices such as the iPhone and iPad, had signed to use it.
ARM, whose chip architecture dominates the smartphone and tablet sectors, says that its new Cortex-A7 design is its most energy efficient ever, and that it was designed with low battery demand rather than huge gains in processing power in mind.
“This core will enable apps processors at similar levels of performance to what you find in a high-end smartphone today, but in a couple of years that level of performance will be in a lower-end, and therefore a lower-cost smartphone,” the ARM chief executive, Warren East, said. The Cortex-A7, he said, “will help connect the next billion people in developing markets.”
The move is part of a continuing race between ARM and the US semiconductor giant Intel (NSDQ: INTC) to make more power-efficient chips to capture the enormous smartphone market and its burgeoning cousin in tablets. Intel has been trying for years to break into the smartphone and tablet space, but without success, because its x86 chips consume significantly more power than the ARM architecture.
East said: “Intel has been making great progress forward – but we would say we’re making better progress at ARM. We have always said that Intel will be getting their devices into smartphones at some point, but our roadmap doesn’t stand still.”
Commenting on the announcement, Richard Windsor, financial analyst at Nomura Securities, agreed: “the main effect of this processor is going to be the acceleration of smartphones down through the tiers [of pricing] enabling the Asian vendors [such as Samsung and China’s ZTE] to make cheaper and cheaper devices.”
But, Windsor warned, “this has the effect of bifurcating the [smartphone] market into high and low end with very little in the middle. Stuart Jeffrey, Nomura’s smartphones analyst, reckons that HTC, Nokia (NYSE: NOK), Motorola (NYSE: MMI) and Sony (NYSE: SNE) Ericsson will be squeezed into the middle.
The Cortex-A7’s power efficiency derives from a combination of its 28-nanometer design and a shorter instruction pipeline, said Tom Cronk, ARM’s vice-president of microprocessors. He said that users of top-end smartphones will also benefit, because the Cortex-A7 is compatible with ARM’s newest high-power Cortex-A15 processor: they can both be deployed onto a single chip, and then – using a new ARM concept called Big.LITTLE – the larger processor can be left quiescent until it is required for more computationally intensive work such as navigation or video-based work, while the smaller one can handle simpler tasks like simple internet traffic. Switching is handled by technology on the chip and is largely independent of the operating system.
Used together, the processors will offer power savings of up to 70 percent on today’s top-end smartphones, ARM said.
In May Intel unveiled a new “tri-gate” manufacturing technology, called Ivy Bridge which it reckoned could deliver the power savings it needs to gain ground in smartphones. East conceded that “Intel made a step forward when they talked about tri-gate technology,” but added that “Actually those finfets (tri-gate technology) will be available for people to build ARM processors on as well because all the semi-conductor process people are moving in that direction.
“But at the same time we are moving on a different axis of increased efficiency, and we decided it was time to talk about more than incremental improvements and talk about multiple.”
ARM’s architecture is licensed by its chipmaking partners; it receives a royalty for each chip shipped, in devices ranging from Apple’s iPhone to electronic toys and air conditioners.
This article originally appeared in MediaGuardian.