Here's how souped-up your smartphone will be in 2016

British chip designer ARM introduces two new processors that will lead to slimmed-down phones that can run faster and longer.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Ben Fox Rubin
Shara Tibken
3 min read

A conceptual image of the ARM's newest processor design, which will come to smartphones next year. ARM

If the personal computer is ever killed off, ARM is hoping it will have had something to do with it.

The British chip-design firm, whose technology is used in nearly every smartphone, unveiled Tuesday more-powerful technologies -- the Cortex-A72 processor and Mali-T880 graphics chip -- that should be coming to smartphones in 2016.

These designs could help handset makers create new devices that let people be more productive on their phones, using them to write or edit longer stories or produce videos, so folks won't have to reach for their laptops as often. Ultimately, ARM's goal is to close the gap in the experience between the smartphone and PC, further supplanting PCs with smartphones as the true device for every situation.

"I think innovation is accelerating in the phone space," ARM executive Ian Ferguson said during a conference call Tuesday. "We think the phone is becoming the primary compute platform."

On top of that, ARM claims the new technologies will provide a boost in energy efficiency, letting manufacturers produce thinner devices that will last longer.

ARM -- which develops chip designs for companies including Qualcomm and MediaTek -- stands to gain richly if it's able to bring forward a wholly mobile age for consumers and office workers. However, while the smartphone has upended many industries, it still doesn't serve as a full replacement for a desktop or laptop. Many functions, particularly those involving writing stories, editing videos or producing music, remain in the realm of the PC, though the smartphone industry is trying to change that.

In addition to weakening the PC market, a more robust smartphone may also hurt sales of tablet computers, Ferguson said, owing in part to smartphones now coming out with bigger screens.

"We're going to start seeing a change this year," Ferguson said of people creating more content on their phones. "I think '16 is a pivotal year where you're going to see a significant uptick."

Some are skeptical that smartphones can wholly replace other devices.

"I really don't think most people are going to use their mobile phone only," said Bob O'Donnell, principal analyst at Technalysis Research. "It's just too hard," though he added that the ability to wirelessly connect to large displays could benefit mobile devices.

At an event in San Francisco, ARM hosted a panel with partners -- including Microsoft, Sprint and Facebook-owned virtual reality firm Oculus -- who talked about the need for more-powerful computing in mobile.

Oculus, for instance, originally developed VR technology for PCs, but it's now looking more at mobile devices. Late last year the company introduced, with Samsung, the Gear VR headset, which uses Samsung's Galaxy Note 4 smartphone. Even though the Note 4 has a high-definition screen, it still can't remove all pixels from the viewing experience. For the headset to work better, the devices need even higher resolution screens and faster processors, which ARM's technology can help with, said Anuj Gosalia, director of development for mobile and PC software at Oculus.

"We can't wait to get our hands on" ARM's technology, Gosalia said.

The Cortex-A72 processor design offers 50 times more performance than similar technology from five years ago, ARM said, along with 75 percent lower energy consumption versus last year's devices. More than 10 of ARM's partners, including HiSilicon, MediaTek and Rockchip, are already licensed to use the new processor design.

The Mali-T880 graphics technology offers a performance boost from its predecessor, as well as lower energy use. The stronger chip could help software developers start bringing more graphically rich and complex games from PCs and gaming consoles onto mobile devices.

The new designs are expected to be used at a variety of performance levels and prices, ARM said. Also, the technologies were made especially for 16-nanometer chip designs -- a more-advanced kind of manufacturing process that lets chipmakers produce more-robust and smaller chips.