ARM's Race: Why your next laptop might not have Intel inside

ARM's Race: Why your next laptop might not have Intel inside

Summary: The performance margin between smartphones and netbooks could soon disappear altogether. Over the last few weeks ARM and its customers have announced new products that promise to not only power a wave of "super-phones," but also push into tablets, netbooks and laptops and even servers.


It's no secret that the performance margin between smartphones and netbooks is shrinking. But soon it could disappear altogether. Over the last few weeks, ARM Holdings and its customers have announced new products that promise to not only power a wave of "super-phones" coming to market in 2011, but also push the architecture into new markets such as tablets, netbooks and laptops and even servers.

Unlike Intel, ARM doesn't manufacture or sell chips. Instead it licenses its recipes to chip designers who customize them and add other ingredients to develop more complex SOCs (System-On-a-Chip). These customers can either manufacture the SOCs themselves or hire a foundry to fabricate the chips. Nearly all cell phones use ARM-based processors developed in this manner.

Most current smartphones use processors based on ARM's Cortex-A8. This platform was initially designed for chips manufactured on a 65nm low-power process with a single CPU core running at 500MHz to 600MHz. Texas Instruments' OMAP 3430, the processor in the original Motorola Droid and Palm Pre, is an example. Newer implementations from companies such as TI's OMAP 36xx and Samsung's S5PC110-some of which are manufactured on the more advanced 45nm node-can reach speeds up to 1GHz. These processors power the most popular smartphones such as the Apple iPhone 4 (and iPad), Samsung Galaxy line, and Motorola Droid X and Droid 2.

ARM's follow-on, the Cortex-A9, is only just beginning to enter production. The key difference is that the A9 supports symmetric multi-processing in chips with up to four cores (ARM refers to the multi-core versions as MPCores). TI's OMAP 4430, which has two 1.0GHz Cortex-A9 cores and Imagination Technologies' PowerVR SGX540, is schedule to be in production this year. Earlier this month, Samsung announced its Orion processor, which will also have two 1.0GHz A9 cores, but the company claims it will have 5x the graphics performance of its current S5PC100, which uses the PowerVR SGX540. Orion will be in production in the first half of 2011. ST-Ericsson, a joint-venture of STMicroelectronics and Ericsson, has two SOCs using Cortex-A9 cores, both of which integrate ARM's Mali-400 graphics and a 3G baseband. The U8500 for high-end smartphones, which has dual 1.2GHz A9 cores, will be in production later this year. The U5500 for mid-range smartphones, which will have slower frequency A9 cores and graphics, should be in production in mid-2011. Nvidia's Tegra 250, which two 1.0GHz A9 cores combined with Nvidia's graphics technology, should show up in smartphones from Motorola, LG Electronics and HTC in early 2011.

The BlackBerry Playbook, which RIM announced this week, will use a 1GHz dual-core A9, though for now the company isn't saying which one. Most BlackBerries use Marvell processors. Both Marvell and Qualcomm are among a handful of companies that have ARM architectural licenses, meaning they can design chips that are compatible with the ARM v7-A instruction set, but are customized from the ground up rather than starting with ARM Cortex cores. This allows these companies to design processors that operate at faster speeds and/or more efficiently, though the design process takes longer and is more costly.

Last week, Marvell announced the latest addition to its Armada line. The Armada 628 has three general processing cores-two running at 1.5GHz for high-performance and one operating at 624MHz for low-power-plus six additional accelerators for 3D graphics, video encoding and decoding, audio, encryption and image processing. It is currently sampling, but Marvell hasn't announced when it will be in production. Qualcomm has had a lot of success with its Snapdragon processor in products such as HTC's Evo 4G, HD2 and Droid Incredible, Google's Nexus One and Sony-Ericsson's Xperia X10, and it will soon release more powerful versions based on 45nm process technology, The first ones, which will be in production this year, will have a single Scorpion core running at 1.0GHz for smartphones and up to 1.3GHz for tablets and netbooks. Next year, Qualcomm will start production of dual-core Snapdragons running at 1.2GHz for high-end smartphones and 1.5GHz for tablets and netbooks. Qualcomm's advantage is that it combines the processor with a 2G/3G cellular baseband on a single chip.

Exactly how much faster these smartphones and other mobile devices will be depends on a lot of factors including the process technology, frequency, graphics and other processing engines for tasks such as video. The current A8 is capable of around 1,200 Dhrystone MIPS (million instructions per second), according to ARM's specifications, and I'd estimate that a dual-core A9 is capable of perhaps 4,500 Dhrystone MIPS, or nearly a 4x improvement. (Dhrystone is a standard test that measures integer performance.) Another advantage to these dual-core ARM processors is that they will support full 1080p video and most will have HDMI-out to drive an external HDTV. ARM says the dual-core Cortex-A9 is competitive with the single-core 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor in most netbooks.

That brings me to another interesting Cortex-A9 announcement. Earlier this month, ARM announced that Nufront, a technology company based in China, had developed an SOC with a 2.0GHz dual-core A9 designed for laptops and netbooks. Manufactured using a 40nm process, the NuSmart 2816 chip also includes ARM's Mali-400 graphics, a memory controller, a 1080p video co-processor and the required I/O components to build a laptop. Nufront said it will demonstrate laptops using the NuSmart 2816 at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. The announcement illustrates not only how ARM's performance is reaching up into the PC world, but also how even a small start-up with little processor experience can use one of ARM's "hard macros" and a contract manufacturer to bring a chip to market quickly and at a relatively low cost. I expect to see more companies in Asia pursue this strategy, leading to lower-cost tablets and laptops.

After the A9, ARM plans to make a big leap in performance and features with its Cortex-A15, previously known by the code-name Eagle. Designed for 32nm and beyond, the A15 will support up to four cores in a single cluster running at speeds up to 2.5GHz, though smartphones and other mobile devices will use dual-core versions running at up 1.5GHz. ARM says the A15 will deliver about 5x the performance of a current smartphone with a single Cortex-A8 core while using about the same amount of power. The A15 will also include several new features-system coherency for clusters, hardware support for OS virtualization without modifications to the kernel, larger memory addressability, and memory error detection and correction-that make it clear that ARM is after not only high-end handsets, but also tablets, laptops, servers and communications infrastructure products such as wireless basestations. Samsung, ST-Ericsson and Texas Instruments are the "lead licensees," but don't expect to see products based on the Cortex-A15 until late 2012 at the earliest.

Of course, neither Intel nor AMD is sitting still. Intel has finally released a dual-core version of Atom for netbooks, the 1.50GHz N550, and Acer, Asus, Fujitsu, Lenovo, LG, Samsung, MSI and Toshiba have all started shipping products using it. At the Intel Developer Forum earlier this month, the company was also showing some tablets based on its Moorestown Atom Z6xx SOC, which Intel has said is comparable in terms of performance to an ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore dual-core processor. The performance looks promising, but it still draws too much power for handsets, and I don't expect to see many smartphone designs until Intel releases the successor, the Medfield platform, sometime in 2011. Early next year Intel also plans to release the Oak Trail platform for tablets. Around the same time, AMD will launch its Ontario dual-core processor, manufactured by TSMC on a 40nm process, for netbooks and ultra-thin laptops.

It's too early to tell whether ARM will succeed in "moving up the stack" and pushing its technology into PCs and servers--just as it is too early to tell whether Intel will be able to successfully push x86 down into smartphones and tablets. The companies have very different businesses, and the head-to-head clash between the two can be a bit overblown. In areas where x86 operating environments and applications are entrenched (and growing), such as the bulk of the server marker, Intel and AMD are likely to maintain much of the business. In other categories such as tablets, netbooks and laptops where users are increasingly comfortable with other operating systems and applications-Apple's iOS, Google's Android and Chrome OS, BlackBerry-ARM could make real inroads. One thing's for sure: the choices for mobile computing are about to become much more complicated.

Topics: Processors, Hardware, Intel, Laptops, Mobility, Smartphones, Tablets

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  • Just what I want!

    "... push the architecture into new markets such as tablets, netbooks and laptops and even servers."

    Instead of buying a PC with a multicore processor, a single disk, network card and a single OS ... I want an architecture of redundant, cooperating components (one of which may be powerful until parallel processing is harnessed properly) ... the principle of RAID extended to the entire system (RAID 6 too) ... but not costing the extortionate amounts which most businesses put up with.
    • bad idea

      each item will have a subcription fee!
  • RE: ARM's Race: Why your next laptop might not have Intel inside

    The major factor is going to be "Will it run Microsoft Windows?" If it does then great, ARM might have a future, if not then its DOA.
    Loverock Davidson
    • Nope! You don't need to worry about that.

      It's all 100% windoze-free goodness.<br><br>It's complete peace of mind, you don't have to worry about having an easily compromisable OS threatening your security, windoze runs only on Intel.
      OS Reload
      • That's the problem

        most people want Windows, if it doesn't run it, they'll go with a model that will, no ifs, ands or buts.

        Who really wants Linsux or Hemroid on a laptop?
        John Zern
      • You spend too much time.....

        @John Zern

        looking in the rear view mirror. Try looking far ahead, and you just may see the shimmering of something different.
      • RE: ARM's Race: Why your next laptop might not have Intel inside

        @OS Reload - your grasp of the facts and of history are clearly tenuous at best.

        FWIW, Windows NT (from which NT3.5, 4, XP, Vista and 7 are derived) was originally built for MIPS, then x86, DEC Alpha, PowerPC and x64. Windows was ported to ARM during Longhorn but neither ARM nor Windows were ready for each other back then.

        There is NOTHING stopping Microsoft from releasing an ARM version of Windows, nor an ARM version of Office, etc. It'll take work, skill and resources, but MS has all three in abundance.

        Remember - Microsoft's business model is mass-market adoption: They tend to invest in things they think they can sell hundreds of millions of. Now that ARM is all grown up (hardware memory management, TLB, SMP, etc), and now that MS have done the bulk of the work to re-architect Windows more cleanly, the decision to release Windows for ARM is 95% a business decision.
      • RE: ARM's Race: Why your next laptop might not have Intel inside

        @OS Reload
        Huh? What BS are you spouting? Windows is running quite well on my AMD machine.
        And if you read the Windows 7 System Requirements:
        you will see that it says *NOTHING* about it needing an Intel processor.
      • @De-Void: It's too late for Microsoft to catch up on ARM.

        They wasted too much time and now Windows is just "an also ran" on ARM. Windows' fate is tied to Intel and Intel is starting to turn its back on Windows.

        Windows is going nowhere but south (metaphorically, of course.)
        OS Reload
      • RE: ARM's Race: Why your next laptop might not have Intel inside

        @De-Void - Shhh you'llgive Economush brain a headache with that thinking. Even though you're correct.
      • RE: ARM's Race: Why your next laptop might not have Intel inside

        @OS Reload LOL nice troll buddy. Windows 7 is a great OS. its the only OS with marketshare that is growing atm. If it doesnt run windows, then the majority of people will not be interested in it.
      • OS Reload, your ignorance of a subject

        is clearly shown by every post you make.

        What pleasure do you obtain by spouting out quite obvious falsehoods, which do little more then make you look foolish?

        You would be a fascinating study in regards to the more senseless human emotions.

        Tim Cook
      • RE: ARM's Race: Why your next laptop might not have Intel inside

        @OS Reload ...Zealot, remove your horseblinders.
        Feldwebel Wolfenstool
      • RE: ARM's Race: Why your next laptop might not have Intel inside

        @OS Reload ....Is that you, Steve?
        Feldwebel Wolfenstool
      • RE: ARM's Race: Why your next laptop might not have Intel inside

        @OS Reload
        That's what I'd like to know. Will the next generation of notebook computers forego Windows and use some nice light OS? I wouldn't mind seeing 20 million OEM Windows 7 licenses being chucked into the trash.

        And no, I don't think most people want Windows. I think most people just tolerate Windows as necessary evil of using a computer. At least the low-tech people that I know feel that way. Most of them wish they had less problems of keeping their computers running properly and keeping it free of malware and virii. For 90% of the time, most of them could skip Windows and use something simple to check email and browse the internet. I'd say it's high time for a change in OSes.
      • ContableOdo. People wanting Windows was proven beyond any doubt..remember?

        ConstableOdo, you honestly don't recall when Windows 7 was offered at pre-release and the massive response and purchases of RETAIL versions of the OS? This was not people getting machines with Windows on board, it was the most massive uptake and swarming of the general public to an OS since Windows 95.

        And enough of the 1990s rhetoric. I'm familiar with OS X, Linux and Windows 7 and the latter is now the best in all of my experience and testing.
        Windows 7 runs more securely than a Mac, which doesn't have layered defenses, even though we know the mass majority of social engineering attacks, which make up 99% of today's attacks are aimed at Windows. Specifically XP, but still it's like Mac people claiming their OS is better just because XP attacks do not affect them. Well they don't affect windows 7 either and only affect XP if the user willingly allows software to run on his/her machine.
        There are many Linux weaknesses and exploits. Anyone that reads knows this and when there are identified remotely executable holes in Linux or OS X (which there have been far more than windows, just nobody bothers to write to them yet) if you have half a brain you realize, exploitable code is exploitable code no matter the OS and the only reason Linux didnt' get trashed (any given time, but it has as you know many times) is just luck, nobody wrote code to use the existing exploitable bugs.
        It's like the people that claim the market share reasoning is a myth about MS getting attacked more.
        No, it's hard fact. The government has intercepted many emails from hostile countries that had social engineering in them to try and lure users to a specially crafted site or whatever, and they were ALL aimed at Windows. The Anti-U.S. world sees Windows as America's OS and all state sponsored hacking is aimed at Windows.
        The criminals looking to steal identities etc work from email lists available online. Can you honestly say that they, armed with a 1000 email addresses, are going to attempt to attack OS X or Linux in the emails they send to those 1000 people? (this is an exmaple, there are hundreds of thousands of email addresses easily obtainable by anyone as you know)
        Seriously, you think they embed Linux hacks in those in hopes of affecting .09% of the recipients? Or OS X and hit 3% of recipients worldwide?

        Please be professional. Windows 7 is a very very good OS that is the msot stable I've used in my career.
        No care and feeding and I do run the free MSE, which has such a small footprint you can't tell it's running and that's it. I've nto even had any attempts make on m
      • RE: ARM's Race: Why your next laptop might not have Intel inside

        @De-void : I don't know where you checked your facts, but as per my knowledge, there has never been a port of the NT kernel for ARM.

        Although your argument is solid (NT was ported to a plethora of CPUs) in its current state (Windows 7) a successful port would not only depend on the core components, but also drivers, services, and tons of plug ins. Since there's no possibility of WOW (Windows on Windows) inside ARM and this platforms are not great at VMing, then this is a task wrought with problems. Last but not least, what use would a Windows 7 ARM port have without the app support. Without it, one might just choose any other app filled platform like Android or iOS.
      • RE: ARM's Race: Why your next laptop might not have Intel inside

        @cosuna: My facts are correct. The ARM port ("LongARM" as it was called) was not released, but the port was done and a very substantial percentage of Windows ran just fine. However, it wasn't released because back in 2002, there was no market for ARM-based devices, nor were ARM SOC's yet ready to run Windows at a level of performance that users would have found acceptable. Remember - ARM is only now beginning to offer raw performance comparable to an Atom. Also, ARM cores back then didn't have good support for SMP, didn't have hardware MMC and had weird DMA & interrupt handling mechanisms that didn't support a desktop-class OS.

        That said, ARM has moved on a great deal of late and the future for ARM is bright. I am one of ARM's biggest fans having first started writing ARM assembly code back in 1987 when I first got my hands on an Acorn Archimedes.

        Your points about app portability are spot-on. Interestingly, however, there is VERY VERY little user-mode code that is processor specific these days. The VAST majority of well written software can port to ARM with little or no modification. There will be challenges getting drivers written for the various SOC's which incorporate not just CPU, but IO, MMC, Graphics, WiFi, Bluetooth, etc. and each of which are different from one another. Having said that, however, it won't be a lot of work since well-written driver code is relatively easy to port in Windows because the OS provides so much of the abstraction and substrate to insulate even driver code from the underlying CPU architecture.

        Not saying there won't be work involved, but it's certainly in reach.
      • Whatever windoze is; but Windows the most popular OS there will ever be..

        @OS Reload
        Runs on Intel and AMD.

        Sounds like your brain runs on pabulum.
      • AMD is Intel (compatible)

        @tech_ed The requirements do mention that the CPU must be x86 or x64. AMD CPUs are Intel compatible so you can install Windows 7 on AMD CPUs, but you cannot install the current Windows 7 on ARM based machines such as an iPhone (or the coming netbooks mentioned in this article).