New ARM chips headed for iPhone, Palm Pre?

The company that designs chips for the world's smartphones says handset makers will deliver faster models next year based on multil-core processors.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

ARM, the company that designs chips for the world's smartphones, said handset makers will deliver the first models using more than one processor core next year, as high-end mobile phones begin to mimic the hardware attributes of PCs.

Palm Pre
Palm Pre Palm

And that means top smartphone suppliers such as Apple and Palm, which both use ARM-based processors, will likely deliver models packing at least two cores inside the main processor--referred to as an application (or applications) processor.

This is a natural progression for high-end smartphones like the iPhone and Palm Pre as the software those phones run gets increasingly sophisticated.

"You'll definitely see handsets shipping with a dual-core A9 in 2010," James Bruce, wireless segment manager for ARM, said in a phone interview earlier this week, referring to the next-generation Cortex-A9 processor from ARM.

The Palm Pre uses a processor based on the current-generation Cortex A8. The iPhone also uses an Apple-branded chip that is based on an ARM design.

"The A8 is just a single core while the A9 will be dual-core, all the way up to quad-core to give smartphones an even bigger performance boost," Bruce said.

He said the move to dual-core phones should happen relatively quickly. "It's very aggressive. It's only going to be in a year's time that you're going to get these phones," he said.

And what about power consumption, a critical concern for smartphones looking to deliver all-day battery life? "What we've done on the A9 is actually make it more power efficient than the A8. The dual-core A9 will be coming out on 45-nanometer rather than the (current) 65-nanometer process," Bruce said. Generally, the smaller the geometries, the faster and more power-efficient the processor is.

Bruce continued. "With the dual-core running at maximum load there's probably going to be an increase of about 10 to 20 percent in power consumption but in general day to day use you're actually going to see better battery life."

Manufacturers are very strict about power-consumption caps, he said. "The manufacturers lay down the law that maximum power consumption of the processor is 300 milliwatts. In the mobile space, this is one of those golden rules that we have to live within," he said, speaking about the upcoming Cortex A9 processor.

An ARM diagram showing a quad-core Cortex-A9 processor
An ARM diagram showing a quad-core Cortex-A9 processor ARM

By comparison, Intel's power-sipping Atom processor--used widely in Netbooks--is generally rated at more than 2 watts (2,000 milliwatts), though Intel is expected to get this down to smartphone territory with the future "Moorestown" processor.

Bruce also spoke about the speed of the current Cortex-A8 versus the previous ARM design. The principal reason for the performance boost is the A8's superscalar design, which means the processor can execute two separate instructions per clock cycle.

"You're getting a 2X increase (over the previous ARM design). "And actually the A9 takes that even further, It's a superscalar design but it's also an out-of-order design as well. There is some out-of-order aspects with the A8 but the A9 is a very aggressive out-of-order processor," he said. The ability to process instructions using an advanced out-of-order architecture typically results in better performance.

And graphics will follow suit. The upcoming multi-core OMAP 4 processor from Texas Instruments (the OMAP 3 is used in the Palm Pre) is based on the ARM Cortex-9 and will boast graphics that support 1080p video and high-definition record and playback, larger screen resolutions, and "digital SLR-like performance with 20 MP (megapixel) imaging," according to TI documentation.