ARM targets $200 smartphones with new Cortex A12 processor

ARM says Cortex-A12 will succeed the pervasive but aging Cortex-A9 processor

ARM is targeting mid-range smartphones and tablets priced between US$200 and $350 with a new low-power Cortex-A12 processor the company announced Monday at the Computex trade show in Taiwan.

The company's processors are used in most of the world's smartphones and tablets. The new Cortex-A12 processor design will succeed the Cortex-A9 design, which was used in Apple's iPhone 4S, Samsung's Galaxy S3 and many Android tablets.

The A12 will come with up to four cores, and the first handsets and tablets with the processor will be out in mid 2014.

ARM is seeing fast growth in mid-range mobile devices with prices above $200, with handset shipments expected to touch around 500 million by the end of 2015. With A12, ARM hopes to address that emerging market.

The A12 is a faster and more power-efficient replacement for Cortex-A9, which is now a five-year-old design. It is 40 percent more power efficient than A9, and up to 30 percent faster. That translates to better performance and longer battery life in tablets and smartphones.

ARM will have to contend with Intel, which is aggressively chasing the low-cost tablet market with its upcoming Atom chips code-named Bay Trail, which is based on the Silvermont core. Intel expects Android tablets running Bay Trail to be introduced later this year priced between $200 and $399.

With the A12, ARM improved its single-threaded capabilities, said Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at Moorhead Insights and Strategy, in an email.

"A synthesized A12 processor will need to contend with Intel's 22-nanometer Silvermont and 14-nm Airmont," Moorhead said, calling it "a tall order."

ARM licenses its processor designs to companies like Qualcomm, Nvidia, Apple and Samsung, who then make chips for mobile devices. ARM did not announce any licensees for Cortex-A12.

On performance, the A12 is a notch below Cortex-A15, which is for high-end smartphones, tablets and servers. Samsung's latest Exynos 5 chips in the Nexus 10 tablet and Galaxy S4 smartphone are based on the Cortex-A15 processor.

ARM offers other processor designs such as Cortex-A7, which is for handsets and tablets priced under $200. The A12 can be combined with A7 in ARM's Big.Little chip design, where low-power cores are mixed with high-performance cores for efficient energy use of chips. The A12 will take on demanding applications such as multimedia, leaving mundane tasks like text message and voice calls to the A7 processor.

ARM also announced the Mali T622 graphics processor, which can be paired with the A12 processor in smartphones. The T622 can render high-definition video and has built-in image stabilization features. The company also announced the Mali V500 video accelerator to speed up HD video encoding and decoding.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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