ARM flexes muscle: Forget iPhone 5S's 64-bit edge – it will soon be standard

Chip designer's mobile man: 'We'll play at the top end, the middle, and the bottom'

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ARM TechCon Forget the smartphone horse race. Although Apple introduced 64-bit processors to smartphones with its "forward-looking" iPhone 5S, mobile processor maven ARM says it's "no biggie": by late next year, smartphones based on its 64-bit Cortex-A53 processor core should be widely available.

It was expected that the next smartphone of me-too master Samsung would "have 64-bit processing functionality", but ARM now says it foresees its processors embedded in all sorts of handsets.

"I would expect to see [64-bit] Cortex-A53 phones definitely shipping late next year," ARM's director of mobile strategy James Bruce told The Reg at the ARM TechCon confab in Santa Clara, California, on Tuesday.

Bruce did offer one important qualifier to that prediction, however. Referring to ARM's new ARMv8 enhanced 32-bit–plus–64-bit architecture, he said: "I think the important thing to emphasize is that they could be shipping just using the [32-bit] AArch32 mode of V8 rather than taking advantage of the [64-bit] AArch64."

In other words, smartphones may employ bottom-of-the-top-of-the-line Cortex-A53 cores, but not necessarily exploit their 64-bit powers. At least at first.

The Cortex-A53 is the little brother to ARM's Cortex-A57. Both are the first ARM cores to employ the ARMv8 architecture, which swings both 32-bit and 64-bit ways. Each can be used in SoCs either separately or in what ARM calls big.LITTLE configurations, where the lower-power, lower-performace A53 handles the simple stuff and the A57 does the heavy lifting.

The A57 is the core that AMD announced last year will fuel its entry into the top-of-mind ARM-based Opteron server chips. The A53, although subordinate to the A57, is no slouch in the performance department, perfectly capable of powering smartphones and tablets, Bruce said. He also told us not to be surprised to see A53-A57 big.LITTLE configs in both smartphones and tablets – eventually.

Bruce had kind words for the Cortex-A53, as you might expect. "It's actually very impressive," he said, "because what we've managed to do is the Cortex-A53 has Cortex-A9 performance, actually smaller than the A9, and throws in the addition of the 64-bit instructions as well. So an impressive feat of engineering."

When we asked him whether the A53 by itself had a future in tablets and not just smartphones, he was unequivocal. "Absolutely," he said. "I think what you see is a lot of commonality in what ships into smartphones and what ships into tablets."

ARM, he said, has a broad range of cores to offer to a broad range of both smartphone and tablet vendors in – you guessed it – a broad range of markets. "The smartphone chips that we're really shipping at the moment are the Cortex-A5, the Cortex-A7 – which is doing very nicely, MediaTek are selling lots of parts based around the quad-core Cortex-A7." He also mentioned the Cortex-A15 at the current high end and the Cortex-A12 at the mid-level.

In the low-end tablet market, he said, "You're seeing some people using A8s, some people using A9s, and other people using A7s – so there's actually a wide variation in the CPUs that they use."

Bruce pointed out that ARM's ability to offer such a broad range of core IP makes it possible for the company to play in an exceptionally wide range of markets – and also to worm its way into multiple parts of a single device.

"When you talk about mobile, you're normally talking about the apps processor," he said, "but if you look in smartphones there are many ARM cores that you just don't hear about, all the way from the R Series cores in the baseband and M3s being used in Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/GPS combo chips.

And then there are those nascent markets such as wearables and the much-vaunted Internet of Things, where ARM's insanely low-power M0 and M0+ dead-simple cores find their niche.

"Where you see M0s being used is obviously in the wearables where you want that incredible battery life," he said. "But even in some of the analog SoCs you'll see M0 processors to actually help tune those analog circuits or just to do some preprocessing for the, shall we say, digital data, which is then passed on to the rest of the system."

Bruce also reminded us that although we in the developed world may be hungering for the fastest processors available to run our bleeding-edge – and expensive – mobile devices, there's a massive market out there that just wants an entry-level smartphone to replace their feature phones, a handset category that's going the way of the buggy whip.

About feature phones, he said, "The growth is the wrong way – it's negative growth. So definitely what we're seeing is that we're now at the point where you're seeing smartphones in China at $45, $40. So really the only feature phones that are now selling are voice phones at a $20 price point."

You can look at that price difference as either 20 bucks or twice as expensive. Kinda depends on your wallet's point of view, eh?

"Even in Africa we're starting to see that decline of the feature phone," he said, "and we're seeing a lot of the Chinese OEMs, ODMs shipping their smartphones into Africa."

Why is ARM moving so many of its lower-end cores through those Chinese OEMs and ODMs into such emerging markets as Africa, where a smartphone is often the first and only means of internet access for an up-and-coming consumer? Simple: "If you're looking at a $38 smartphone, you can't afford to spend $25 on the SoC," Bruce said.

Reasonable, indeed. And also one reason why, as he told us, "Last quarter there were more Cortex-A5 processors sold in smartphones than there were PCs shipped. That's worldwide." ®

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