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Arm aims to make your Android phone faster with next-gen mobile chips

And maybe your next laptop, too.

Rene Haas, president of Arm’s intellectual property licensing group, announces faster new processors due to arrive in 2019.

Rene Haas, president of Arm's intellectual property licensing group, announces faster new processors due to arrive in 2019.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Arm, the influential designer of mobile processors, wants your Android phone to run faster -- and maybe your ultralight Windows laptop, too.

On Thursday, the company announced a new chip generation, the Cortex-A76, that it said will be 35 percent faster than today's models when it arrives in 2019 phones. That's a big jump for one year, and perhaps enough to help Android phones that rely on Arm processors better match Apple's iPhones.

"We think we've turned a corner relative to the overall performance curve," Rene Haas, president of Arm's intellectual property group, said at a press conference Thursday in San Francisco. He promised "laptop-class performance" and said it should compete with Intel's high-end Core i7 models.

Arm was actually co-founded by Apple in 1990 and designed the chips used in Apple's ill-fated Newton personal digital assistants. Apple's A series of processors, like the A11 Bionic model in the iPhone X and iPhone 8, are now designed in-house at Apple, but they use the Arm language, called an instruction set. The vast majority of Android phones, though, use chips from companies like Qualcomm and MediaTek that not only use Arm's instruction set but also its full-on chip designs, too.

Those Android Arm chips don't match Apple's in performance, though. On the Geekbench speed test comparing chip performance of Android devices to Apple devices, Apple is well ahead. A faster chip will help not only Android but also two other Apple competitors, Microsoft's Windows and Google's Chrome OS, both of which are using Arm chips in power-efficient laptops.

"Apple currently leads in raw CPU performance, which is impressive," said Patrick Moorhead, analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy. "Arm speeding up the designs is a big deal, as it is targeting Windows 10 PCs and Chromebooks."

Speed boost for phones and laptops

How will Arm's in-house designs compete with Apple's? "I expect we'll do well against Apple," said Mike Filippo, Arm's lead processor architect.

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Mike Filippo, Arm's lead processor architect

Stephen Shankland/CNET

But he was clear which company Arm considers its primary rival. "Our real competition is Intel," he said.

"We're building for sustained performance," Filippo said. "The A76 is the biggest leap we've taken in our annual roadmap since we started in 2014."

The 35 percent speed boost is a minimum, Filippo said. Some mathematical tasks will get a boost of 50 percent to 70 percent, and high-performance software that needs fast memory access should get a 60 percent to 95 percent boost for fetching that data, he added. Performance improvements vary depending on which speed test is used, he cautioned, adding that Arm used SPECint for its measurement of a 35 percent performance boost.

The Cortex-A76 has about the performance of today's Intel Core i5-7300, Filippo said. Configured with more cache memory, it should compete with an i7 chip, he said.

One reason the new chip design will be faster is that it can ingest more instructions in parallel -- four instead of three, he said. The chip design also speeds up memory communications and improves its ability to get a jump on upcoming processing instructions it'll have to handle.

"This is a brand-new microarchitecture," a design four years in the works, Filippo said. "We've paid maniacal focus to make sure every transistor we put into this design pays for itself in terms of performance."

Arm-powered notebooks

Microsoft is a big fan and hopes the Arm chips will power laptops that'll turn on fast, connect to mobile networks, feature 20-hour battery life -- and still have enough performance.

"It's the next-generation PC that combines the best of both of these worlds," said Matt Barlow, the Microsoft corporate vice president who leads Windows marketing. "It just changes the way you work. You can go on a two-day business trip and leave that power cord at home."

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Matt Barlow, Microsoft's head of Windows marketing

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Performance has been a weak point for today's Arm-based laptops. CNET's review of the Arm-powered HP Envy x2, for example, concludes the processor "just isn't powerful enough."

Performance should double with Cortex-A76 laptops, Haas said, compared with today's laptops. Those use a processor based on a last-generation design, the Cortex-A73.

One reason Apple leads in the Arm chip universe is that it's willing to build more-expensive processors with more circuitry, something it can afford to do because its overall iPhone and iPad profit margins are good enough to absorb the extra expense, Moorhead said. Another reason is that Apple does better storing data for quick access in cache memory on the chip itself instead of having to wait to retrieve it from a device's main memory.

Neither advantage is insurmountable for a rival device maker willing to pay the price, Moorhead believes. And indeed, he expects better memory technology from conventional Arm designs.

New Arm graphics abilities

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Rahul Pradad, Google Daydream product manager

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Arm also announced two accompanying chips, the Mali-G76 graphics processor and the Mali-V76 video chip. The graphics chip offers a 30 percent speedup, something game developers should welcome, and the video chip can power superhigh 8K resolution displays, Arm said.

Google, which has tested the chips in its virtual reality Daydream products, is impressed. "We have console level graphics with the G76," Rahul Pradad, Daydream product manager, said at the press event.

With the Cortex-A76, Arm started over with a fresh design, and the improvements will continue with its successors, Filippo said. 

"The A76 is a monster, and it's just a beginning," he said. "You can expect we'll be having a discussion of this kind in a year, and another in two years."

First published May 31, 12 p.m. PT.
Updates, 1:09 p.m.: Clarifies Arm's position on performance compared with Apple; 1:43 p.m.: Adds further details about chip performance. Correction, 1:16 p.m.: This story initially misstated the name of the new chip generation. It's the Cortex-A76. 

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