We all know (and love?) ARM as the company which focusses on licensing designs for power-efficient yet still powerful processors, mostly used in embedded devices. The Cambridge company has been looking to expand into the netbook market, and has now announced a new step in this process with a number of new multicore Cortex-A9 designs.
ARM has announced dual, quad, and eight core Cortex-A9 processors, with clock speeds as high as 2Ghz. They’re really aiming for Intel’s Atom here: performance-per-watt is up to eight times more efficient than Intel’s offerings, with the highest-performance designs delivering five times the performance of Intel’s Atom chip at the same power consumption levels.
“This is a huge departure from what we’ve done in the past,” Eric Schorn, vice president, marketing for ARM’s processor division, told ZDNet UK, “We really wanted to take off the handcuffs and see what could be done with performance, performance, performance.” The new designs come in two variants, optimised for either low power consumption or high performance.
“The sweet spot for most customers is dual-core,” Schorn said, “but the base design can go up to quad-core and some partners are already building those. Eight way is coming. Everyone’s high-end roadmap is putting down more cores, and we do that. We’re headed in the direction of Intel’s mainstream processors. We have other plans that surpass the current performance, and we’ll intercept Intel in a high-margin area, not just with Atom.”
Key to ARM’s low power requirements is the ability to turn off different parts of the chip. Parts of the cache, maths, media and general processing areas can be turned off when these parts are idle.
ARM licenses their designs out to countless manufacturers, known as ARM licensees. Interested parties can license the new designs now, with delivery of the finalised designs delivered in the last quarter of 2009. Palm also says they will have evaluation chips ready in the first quarter of 2010.
These new chips will make their way to all sorts of devices, but the most promising application (at least, for me) is the prospect of seeing chips like this in netbooks. Currently, netbooks powered by Intel’s Atom chip are slow and very power-hungry, mostly because Intel decided to pair the Atom chip to an old and power-inefficient chipset. Since innovation in the battery industry is slow, we have to rely on the rest of the hardware to become more efficient, and it seems like ARM is the one really pushing the envelope.