ARM targets $200 smartphones, tablets with new Cortex-A17 processor

ARM's Cortex-A17 processors will reach mobile devices next year

ARM is targeting midrange smartphones and tablets priced starting at US$200 with its Cortex-A17 processor core, announced Tuesday.

Most Android and iOS smartphones and tablets run on processors from ARM Holdings, which licenses chip designs. ARM said its Cortex-A17 processor will be in mobile devices next year.

Smartphones and tablets will be quicker and offer longer battery life with the A17 processor, which is 60 percent faster and more power efficient than ARM's aging Cortex-A9, the company said. The chips will run at clock speeds exceeding 1.5GHz.

ARM expects 344 million midrange smartphones and 105 million tablets in the segment to ship next year. ARM's processors typically take between 18 and 24 months to reach mobile devices, so the first smartphones and tablets could be released in the second half of 2015.

The processor core is the latest addition to a wide range of mobile processors from ARM. Some devices still run on Cortex-A9, which is now 6 years old and on its last legs. ARM three years ago introduced the Cortex-A15 processor core, which was not a big success and is being used in a few devices such as Samsung's Galaxy S4.

The new Cortex-A17 could make amends for the disappointments in the Cortex-A15, which was a bit higher in terms of power requirements, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

"The A15 left room for improvement in performance per watt," Brookwood said.

The Cortex-A17 announcement also comes six months after ARM announced the Cortex-A12, which is also for midrange mobile devices. But there is room for new processors with the mobile device market expanding dramatically.

"When ARM was turning out hundreds of millions of cores a year, Cortex-A9 was fine. But when you're talking about billions of cores being shipped every year, you want to fine-tune each of those cores for specific market sub-segments," Brookwood said.

ARM earlier this month said that 10 billion chips based on its architecture had shipped last year.

The A15 was mostly for high-end devices and servers, and the A17 mobile processor will fill a void left by the A9, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

"It's what their customers want," McGregor said.

ARM is being chased in the mobile market by Intel, whose Atom chips are used in some Windows and Android smartphones and tablets. Intel has picked up the pace at which it produces mobile chips in an effort to catch up with ARM. Intel is trying to use its advanced chip manufacturing processes to overtake ARM on power efficiency in chips.

But ARM-based chips are also advancing in the manufacturing process, and will be made using the 20-nanometer process next year, Brookwood said. Many ARM-based mobile chips are made using the 28-nm process today, and new processor designs like the A17 can take advantage of new manufacturing technologies.

"Those changes in the process technology permit changes in the underlying processor design," Brookwood said.

The Cortex-A17 will support the 28-nanometer manufacturing process employed by TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.) and GlobalFoundries, the top two contract chip manufacturers. The companies are also responsible for making most of the ARM chips used in mobile devices.

Mobile devices are also moving toward 64-bit computing, but the Cortex-A17 is 32-bit. ARM has already introduced the 64-bit Cortex-A57 and A53 cores, but there will be demand for 32-bit midrange mobile devices in the coming years, an ARM spokesman said.

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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Agam Shah

IDG News Service
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