ARM launches a faster, more efficient chip design for smartphones

Nearly every single smartphone sold last year uses a processor originally designed by ARM. On Tuesday, the British company announced new processor designs that will likely end up in devices in 2016.

ARM announced a new CPU chip design and a new GPU chip design. The new CPU is going to be called the Cortex A72, and it should replace the Cortex A15 and Cortex A57 as the “big” CPU for high-performance smartphones and tablets.

Remember that ARM encourages its customers — chipmakers — to lay out its processor cores in what it calls a “Big.Little” configuration. Fast and power-hungry cores handle jobs when single-core performance is important, and other tasks are delegated to the “little” core, which uses less power. The A72 will be a “big” core for most of ARM’s customers, and will likely be paired with the A52 design as its “little.”

Currently, devices sporting ARM’s A57 design are just starting to hit the market, usually in devices with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 chip. Many of last year’s high-end devices are using the A15. According to ARM, the A72 boasts performance 3.5 times better than the A15. More importantly for mobile devices, the A72 will use 75 percent less energy as the A15 on the same workload and will integrate with ARM’s other designs such as those for GPUs, display controllers, and video controllers.

“For our customers that do want to take all the pieces, it will all glue together and will be optimized in a very good way,” Ian Ferguson, ARM VP for marketing, said.

ARM says it’s optimized the A72 design to be fabricated on TSMC’s 16nm process, although other fabs — like Samsung, which is bragging about a new 14nm process — will also be able to produce the design. Ten chipmakers have already licensed the A72 design, including MediaTek, Rockchip, and High Silicon. The A72 is a 64-bit chip but 32-bit apps can run on it without modification.

ARM’s new GPU design is called Mali-T880, and it promises nearly double the performance of the Mali-T760, which is included in devices on sale today, while using 40 percent less energy on the same jobs. There’s also a new security feature called Trustzone, which eliminates backdoors for devices decrypting streamed 4K content.

“If studios are going to trust the streaming of data to these devices at the same time premium content is appearing in theaters, that content has to be secured,” Ferguson said. “With Trustzone, as the information comes down in encrypted form on the handset, it will go to the display without any backdoors to pull off that content and use it in other ways.”

ARM believes that mobile GPUs will soon be used for certain non-graphics computational tasks like speech recognition locally on smartphones. “We’re approaching the time for [general processing] GPU computing. That world is coming,” Ferguson said.

Unfortunately, although these new designs are available today, ARM hasn’t discussed specific technical details, but promises that information is coming in April.