Even in the hype-weary technology industry, a fivefold increase in performance can turn heads. Last week, ARM unveiled a new microprocessor core that it claims will deliver five times the performance of the chips running in today’s advanced smartphones without a significant increase in energy usage. Does that mean that smartphones in 2012 (the expected timeframe for the new Cortex-A15 MPCore processor to appear in commercial products) will be five times as capable as today’s smartphones?
I doubt it. The fivefold performance increase is as much about challenging Intel in the netbook market, as it is about achieving a quantum leap forward for smartphones.
ARM anticipates that its A15 customers, which include Samsung, ST-Ericsson and Texas Instruments, will design smartphone processors delivering 1 GHz to 1.5 GHz clock speeds in single or dual-core configurations.
That is probably sufficient to keep Intel, which says its Atom family of chips can deliver up to 1.5GHz clock speeds for high-end smartphones, at bay. Although the processors in the most advanced smartphones today already run at speeds of 1GHz, this tends to be in single-core configurations, which can’t accomplish as much as the dual-core chips that are now commonplace in PCs.
As well as supporting better multitasking and “multiple software personalities”, ARM says A15-based smartphones will be able to offer “instant web-browsing”, navigation, augmented reality applications and “console-quality gaming.” But in each case, an advanced processor alone won’t be enough – instant web browsing and augmented reality also depend on fast, responsive connectivity, while console-quality gaming is going to need a very high-quality display.
Like processors, display technology does appear to be progressing in leaps and bounds. Apple claims the iPhone 4’s screen displays four times as many pixels as its predecessor. Whether connectivity can keep up seems less certain. In the relatively few places where fibre has been laid in the ground and there is plenty of LTE, HSPA+ or WiFi capacity, smartphones should be able to connect to the Internet at speeds that will fully realise the potential of the A15. But elsewhere, the processor will probably be waiting for the modem to deliver data for it to crunch.
Calling it a day
But the biggest limiting factor on smartphone performance will continue to be battery life. People want slim, compact handsets and battery technology is still only progressing at about 10 percent a year. Even if A15-based processors, LTE modems and HD displays don’t use any more power than their predecessors, smartphones that are used intensively throughout a working day will still pack up around 5pm. Fear of a flat battery and no phone calls may dampen demand for the kind of high-performance, 3D apps the A15 could enable on smartphones.
That won’t bother ARM too much. Eventually, batteries will get better. In the meantime, the A15 is the Cambridge, England company’s most credible play yet for new markets, such as home entertainment and servers. In these segments, the A15 may deliver good enough performance and frugal enough power consumption to justify the rewriting of software written for the Intel’s x86 family of processors or other competing architectures.
Back in the mobile industry, the A15’s biggest impact is likely to be on the evolution of tablets, and, particularly, netbook computers, which tend to use Intel’s Atom chips. As they have the space for bigger batteries and more ventilation than smartphones, a tablet or netbook computer with an A15 chip should be able to run at a heady 2GHz or even 2.5GHz (the A15 core’s maximum clock speed), compared with the 1GHz offered by the ARM-based processor in the current Apple iPad.
ARM’s architecture still appears to be more power efficient than Intel’s and the A15 looks set to address the performance deficit. As Intel says its Atom family will deliver up to 1.9 GHz for tablets, a 2GHz ARM-based tablet would really lay down the gauntlet to the chip giant and the x86 ecosystem. Let’s see how Intel responds at its developer forum in San Francisco later this week.
This article was first published on the GSMA’s Mobile World Live portal. David moderates discussion forums on the site and is a freelance media and investor relations consultant.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members