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Shot in the ARM: New chip design aims to boost mobile gadget speed and performance

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ARM, chip, microprocessor, smart phoneSmart phones have become today's PCs, enabling mobile connection to the Internet, messaging and thousands of different apps. But for the smart phone to progress to an even higher level of sophistication and acceptance, it's going to need microprocessors, or chips, that can supply even more power, without draining the battery. No problem, says ARM Ltd., a Cambridge, U.K. chip designer that specializes in mobile devices.


ARM introduced on Thursday its Cortex-A15 MPCore architecture, a blueprint for building microprocessors that power smart phones, tablets, mobile computers and digital home entertainment devices. Microprocessors based on the Cortex-A15 MPCore are expected to run at a clock rate of up to 2.5 gigahertz while still being energy efficient. Clock rate, measured in cycles per second, indicates how fast a computer performs basic operations, such as adding or transferring data. (For comparison, Apple's iPhone 4 and iPad run on the A4 processor, based on ARM's earlier Cortex A8, which has a CPU clock rate of 1 gigahertz.)


In addition to its speed, the Cortex-A15 MPCore architecture is also expected to allow phone makers to offer partitioning. By partitioning resources, a user could essentially have two phones—each complete with its own phone number, contacts and apps—on the same handset, perhaps one for work and the other for personal use. This has been done through paravirtualization in the past, but the Cortex-A15 MPCore would make it easier and more efficient, without the need to modify the phone's operating system, says Eric Schorn, ARM's vice president of marketing.


ARM's business is designing microprocessors and leaving the manufacturing to its customers. The Nokia N900 and Palm Pre smart phones feature processors based on the ARM Cortex A8 architecture. Texas Instruments, ST-Ericsson, NVIDIA and Qualcomm have all incorporated ARM's newer Cortex-A9 MPCore into the design of their own microprocessors. About 20 billion microprocessors based on ARM designs have been produced since the company's founding in 1990, and more than 90 percent of all mobile devices use one or more ARM-based processors, according to the company.


Apple uses ARM-designed chips in the iPad as well as the iPhone 4 and 3GS. Intrinsity, an Austin, Texas-based semiconductor maker that Apple bought in April for $121 million, designed the iPad's A4 CPU based on Cortex A8. ARM's connection to Apple dates back to 1990, when the company (then called Advanced RISC Machines) spun out of a venture between Apple and now-defunct British PC maker Acorn Computer to architect a new chip for Apple's Newton personal digital assistant (PDA). ARM would not comment on any work with Apple moving forward.


ARM's fiercest competitor is Intel, which in 2008 introduced its Atom low-voltage microprocessor for mobile devices. Intel is counting on the Atom to help branch beyond the PC industry, which the company has dominated for decades, and more fully into embedded and mobile devices. The Atom is already used in a variety of netbooks, including the HP Mini and Asus Eee. One novel use of the microprocessor comes from Nautilus Inc., which puts Atom chips into its treadmills to stream Internet video onto built-in displays and to upload times and distances from workouts, the San Francisco Chronicle reported earlier this week.


Image courtesy of ARM

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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