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ARM's new Cortex core ready for low-power multicore chips

The new Cortex A9 core design could hit smart phones by the end of the decade and help chip makers take advantage of multicore technology with minimal power consumption.

Two weeks after Intel signaled its future low-power intentions, ARM has unveiled its latest mobile chip design for smart phones and consumer devices that will arrive around 2010.

ARM CEO Warren East, left, and marketing executive John Goodacre discuss the launch of the Cortex A9 at the ARM Developers Conference. Tom Krazit/CNET

The Cortex A9 is an extension of the Cortex family of applications processor cores that ARM unveiled two years ago with the Cortex A8. It combines the multiprocessor support of older ARM cores with the Cortex design, ARM's highest-performance implementation to date. Several ARM partners, such as Texas Instruments, Samsung, STMicroelectronics, Nvidia and NEC Electronics also announced plans to use the Cortex A9 in future chips for smart phones and consumer electronics devices.

ARM, based in Cambridge, England, doesn't actually make chips. It designs processor cores that companies like TI and Samsung use in smart phones made by Nokia and Apple, respectively. There's an ARM core in more than 90 percent of the mobile phones in the world, and in many cases there are several ARM designs inside your phone.

"The ARM world is growing a lot faster than the economy as a whole, and the semiconductor industry as a whole," said Warren East, ARM's CEO, in a press conference Wednesday at the ARM Developers Conference. Smart phones aren't nearly as prevalent as PCs, but they are growing much stronger than their larger cousins, and ARM is the predominant chip architecture used in those phones.

As a result, Intel wants a piece of this market as it evolves. At some point down the road, either smart phones are going to become more sophisticated, or minitablet PCs are going to become sleeker and offer better battery life. Both Intel and ARM are positioning themselves to be inside future mobile computers, and each brings different strengths to the table.

ARM's John Goodacre, program manager for multiprocessing, said mobile chip makers will be able to implement up to four processing cores with the Cortex A9. He doesn't anticipate that smart phones even around the end of the decade will need that much performance, considering that PC customers today are having trouble justifying four cores. But embedded devices like in-car processors and networking gear, where ARM customers also build chips, will be at those levels in 2010 or thereabouts.

In the most powerful configuration, Cortex A9 chips should be able to deliver up to 8,000 DMIPS (dhrystone million instructions per second) of performance with power consumption of around 250 milliwatts. DMIPS is an older measure of integer performance that's mainly used these days for embedded chips that don't run nearly the amount of code that PC and server chips have to handle, so it's difficult to judge exactly how much performance that is compared with a modern-day PC processor from Intel or AMD.

But 250 milliwatts of power consumption is far below what the most power-sensitive PC chips are capable of delivering these days, and devices with ARM chips are already at that level today. The ARM11 core, which is the basis for the Samsung applications processor used in the iPhone, has around that level of power consumption.

Intel hopes to get well below a watt with its Silverthorne processor, due out next year. And in 2010 it plans to ship a processor called Moorestown that will probably compete directly against the Cortex A9 for design wins in future smart phones or MIDs, Intel's vision of the future of mobile computing.

In fact, Digitimes reported Wednesday that Apple is considering replacing the ARM-based Samsung chip currently found in the iPhone with Moorestown once the product is ready. Intel has released little information about Moorestown, other than to say it wants to dramatically reduce the power consumption of its products by the time that arrives around 2010.

UPDATE: An ARM representative pointed out that the Cortex A8 was actually the first Cortex applications processor for products like smart phones. The first Cortex processor was the Cortex M3, designed for networking gear and other embedded devices.