ARM seen making rapid progress on next high-end chip

ARM is in the advanced stages of developing a top-line processor to succeed the Cortex-A72

ARM's next major CPU design could be here sooner than you think.

The company is in the advanced stages of development with its next high-end processor, which will succeed the Cortex-A72 and could reach smartphone and tablet makers by the end of next year, chip analyst Linley Gwennap said in a research note this week.

ARM's chip designs are used in most of the world's smartphones and tablets, and its speedy development work reflects the intense pressure gadget makers are under to get new products to market quickly. It also reflects heightened competition from Intel.

ARM hasn't discussed the new chip publically and even its name it not yet known. But the company seems to be accelerating the pace at which it gets new processor designs to market.

The Cortex-A57 was announced in October 2012 and appeared in handsets two years later. The Cortex-A72, its successor, was announced this past February and will start to appear in mobile devices by the end of this year.

Gwennap expects the next major Cortex design to start being manufactured late next year. It will take several months after that for licensees to test and validate the chip, and for device makers to get it to market.

Development of the next-gen chip is so far along that the team working on the A72 might be able to "steal" design elements for use in their own product, Gwennap wrote. For example, he said, a new floating-point unit reduces latency by 33 percent.

The A72 made up for some of the shortcomings in the A57, which despite its success wasn't fully optimized for the low-power needs of smartphones. The new design is expected to improve things further, allowing for faster smartphone and tablet chips that don't compromise battery life.

"Although the high-level block diagram is essentially the same as for the A57, the new design includes many low-level improvements to reach its performance goal," Gwennap wrote.

The new design could also be used in servers, a market ARM is trying to break into. After a lot of initial hope, ARM server chips from some vendors were delayed, though PayPal and some other big companies have said they're testing ARM servers.

A spokesman for ARM declined to comment on The Linley Group's report.

ARM is accelerating its development efforts to compete with Intel, which is also designing new chips at a faster pace, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

"ARM needs to continue to show innovation much more quickly," he said.

In fact, ARM also faces competition from within its own camp. The company licenses its technology in different ways. Some chip makers license a finished processor design, such the Cortex products, while others take an architectural license, which allows them to design their own ARM chips from scratch.

An off-the-shelf processor license helps companies bring chips to market more quickly and cheaply, but an architectural license lets a company design chips to meet its exact needs, and can allow it to better differentiate its products. Apple, for example, has an architectural license.

That puts pressure on ARM to release off-the-shelf designs quite quickly, so that companies that license those products don't fall behind rivals who create their chips from scratch.

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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