ARM launches Cortex A-72 platform, powering flagship smartphones in 2016

ARM, the CPU company that powers virtually all smartphones, announces the Cortex A-72 chip design as well as a new graphics core.

Every flagship smartphone you buy contains a processor designed by ARM. On Tuesday, ARM described what those flagship phones will look like in 2016 -- and they'll all be powered by its new chip, the Cortex A-72 processor.

ARM's announcements set the table for a new generation of flagship phones. Not only did ARM announce the Cortex A-72 processor, but a new, integrated Mali-T880 GPU, a new CCI-500 processor interconnect and even optimizations for a new TSMC 16-nm FinFET manufacturing process.

ARM occupies a unique niche in the chip industry. As a chip designer, the company doesn't actually make any products, but its designs are licensed to companies including Qualcomm, Samsung and others. Those companies turn ARM's designs into actual chips that power next-generation smartphones. To allow time for its ten unnamed licensees to actually develop product, ARM's new Cortex A-72 won't ship until early 2016, according to ARM CPU group vice president of marketing Nandan Nayampally.

In general, ARM said its chips have increased in performance more than 50 times in five years, with the Cortex A-72 simply continuing the trend.

ARM's selling points for the A-72 chip will be 4K technology, mobile gaming, and connecting the Internet of Things, the company said. ARM's Ian Drew, the company's chief marketing officer, said the chip will enable capturing 4K video at 120 frames per second, allowing "slow-mo" image capture that can only be done in 1080p on today's smartphones.

The case for 4K: "All users hate pixels"

James Bruce, ARM's director of mobile solutions, said it was simply not true that 4K pixels weren't discernible on today's smartphones. "All users hate pixels," he said. "They hate to see and detect pixels."

There will be some users with better eyesight that can discern pixels even at higher resolutions, Bruce added; the new Cortex chips will also be shipped into tablets, where displays are even bigger. In general, "there is an insatiable demand for higher resolutions and higher frame rates," he said.

Mobile gaming will also improve dramatically, ARM said, as the new T-880 integrated GPU will offer 1.8 times the performance of the Mali T-880 GPU that's powering today's smartphones. And to connect the Internet of Things, the chip will need to be able to spare the power to periodically communicate with sensors, smartwatches, and other devices; the A72 will consume 75 percent less power than the Cortex A15, Drew said.

The new Cortex is an ARM v8-A, 64-bit chip, meaning that it will see a performance boost if paired with Google's new 64-bit Lollipop operating system--and not, if it's forced to run a 32-bit OS. Today, however, Lollipop is relatively unused.

ARM brought a number of industry partners on stage to help talk about the need for the additional performance the Cortex A72 will bring. Anuj Gosalia, director of development for mobile and PC software for Facebook's Oculus technology, said that Oculus could use the additional horsepower now.

The Oculus technology, when paired with a Samsung phone to create the Samsung Gear VR, creates a 110-degree field of view that simulates the Oculus virtual-reality environment. But even with a Galaxy phone attached, "you can still see pixels," he said.

"We would like to see a 4K or even higher screen, and drive much more than a 60Hz refresh rate," Gosalia said. "It needs all the power it can get. So we are very excited to get a lot of CPU power, and GPU power. We can't wait to get our hands on it."

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Mark Hachman

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