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Arm promises 30% chip speed boost for 2022 phones with Cortex-X2 design

Chipmakers can mix and match chip modules to emphasize raw performance or power efficiency.

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- 03:35
Arm's Cortex-X2 is its top-end processor engine design.

Arm's Cortex-X2 is its top-end processor engine design.

Arm; Illustration by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Expect many 2022 phones to run about 30% faster thanks to new processors coming from chip designer Arm, the UK company whose technology is used in billions of mobile devices. The company on Tuesday announced its new processor designs, including the top-end Cortex-X2 processing core.

In 2020, Arm announced its Cortex-X1 chip design, offering new options to Android phone makers hoping for a chip customized with more powerful hardware. One high-profile X1-powered chip is Samsung's Exynos 2100, which arrived this year. The Cortex-X2 continues that effort but builds on Arm's new chip foundation, the Armv9 architecture announced in March, which adds new performance and security options.

Processing power is crucial to mobile phones. It makes games run smoothly and apps launch fast. It lets you try new technology, such as artificial intelligence and augmented reality. It speeds up your TikTok video editing. Better processing power in Arm's chip designs helps midrange phones in particular and gives Android phones a better shot at competing with speed leader Apple.

Much of Arm's success has come not from top performance but from low power usage. It's trying to offer the best of both worlds by packaging the X2 with higher efficiency processing cores, the midrange A710 and the low-power A510. Also announced Tuesday was the new Mali G710, G510 and G310 graphics cores and faster interconnect technology to mix and match different modules into a single multipurpose processor.

Arm develops chip technology and licenses it to other companies like Qualcomm, Apple, Huawei, MediaTek and Samsung. Not all customers use its full processor designs, though. Indeed, Qualcomm acquired startup Nuvia in an effort to differentiate its chips beyond run-of-the-mill Arm models and catch up to Apple.

The breadth of Arm's alliances is a testament to its influence. And it's one reason Nvidia -- a major maker of graphics and AI chips -- is trying to acquire Arm for $40 billion. That acquisition is a problem for Nvidia competitor Qualcomm, whose incoming chief executive, Christian Amon, argues that "the strength of the Arm roadmap is its independence."

One likely Cortex-X2 ally is Samsung, which endorsed the new chip designs and typically announces new models in line with Arm's release schedule. That would mean a new processor around the end of this year and new phones using them early in 2022.

Arm Cortex-X2 speed boost

The new Arm chip designs don't guarantee a top performing phone. Chipmakers also have to invest in fast memory, large memory caches and other features. That's easier for phone makers making premium products -- like Apple.

The Cortex-X2 design and Armv9 architecture is a foundation for those kinds of speeds, argues Paul Williamson, general manager of Arm's client business. "There's a lot we can do working with our partners to push that system performance way higher," he said.

Arm estimates its X2 is 30% faster than the X1. Its A710 cores, designed to handle somewhat less important work alongside the X2, are 30% faster than their A78 predecessors. And the A510 cores, for handling background tasks and low-priority jobs without draining your battery, is 35% faster than the earlier A55.

Arm Cortex-X2 speed boost diagram

Arm expects faster speeds for its Cortex-X2 and accompanying processor cores compared to 2021 prececessors.

Arm

Chips for Arm PCs, too

Qualcomm has been a notable Arm ally not just because of its widely used smartphone chips, like its new Snapdragon 888, but also because it's trying to encourage Arm-powered PCs. The new MacBook Air is powered by the M1 processor, an Apple-designed Arm-family chip. Qualcomm has an option now to offer its own Nuvia-powered Arm PC chips, too.

Others could use the new Cortex-X2 for PC chips, though. 

"While Qualcomm is the sole Windows on Arm provider today, Mediatek has a very good share in Chromebooks," laptops powered by Google's Chrome OS, Williamson said.