ARM's next-gen Cortex-A73 chips are just right for your phone

The company's new CPU and GPU designs aim for high efficiency and sustained performance

20160224 stock mwc smartphone user in suit

An attendee at Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona uses a smartphone on the show floor on Feb. 25, 2016.

Credit: Stephen Lawson

You’re probably spending more time with your smartphone, and ARM’s noticed.

The company behind the architecture of most mobile processors has created its next-generation chip designs for sustained high performance and longer battery life.

ARM is announcing the Cortex-A73 CPU at Computex in Taipei on Monday. Chips based on the design will be a little faster than their predecessors, but this generation is more about efficiency, ARM says.

That fits what’s happening in phones now, according to Tirias Research analyst Paul Teich.

“We kind of have enough power in our smartphones,” he said. And with screens about as big as most consumers want, and phones thin enough, the size of the battery will stay the same for a while.

What’s still changing is how people use their phones, Teich said. They’re playing more demanding games, watching more movies on planes and starting to do some virtual reality, which means putting the screen to the test just an inch from your eyes.

These aren’t short bursts of activity like loading a Web page or fighting off an ambush  in a video game. They’re ongoing activities where users need a consistent quality of experience. For example, at very close range, such as in virtual reality, users quickly grow sensitive to delays and to pixel size, said James Bruce, ARM’s director of mobile solutions.

Chips have to be able to power these applications without using up too much energy. At the end of a long viewing or gaming session, users still want to be able to make a call.

Cortex-A73 chips should perform at nearly their highest speed for long periods of time, ARM says. The gap between peak and sustained performance is much smaller than on the company’s last CPU design, the Cortex-A72.

ARM’s partners can produce CPUs with different numbers of cores to meet their needs. The Cortex-A73 is intended for top-of-the-line smartphones as well as less powerful handsets priced as low as US$200, he said.

The company is also introducing a new GPU design, the Mali-G71, based on its next graphics chip architecture, called Bifrost. Like the Cortex-A73, it will be more efficient and designed for sustained performance, ARM says. But it could also take some mobile devices to a new level.

The Mali-G71 can be built with as many as 32 shader cores, the kinds of processing units that software uses to draw objects. That’s twice as many as there were in ARM’s last premium graphics chip and beats some of the separate GPUs used in midrange laptops, the company says.

High-end versions of the chip could go into still cameras, TVs, drones and even virtual-reality headsets as well as high-end phones, Bruce said. At the low end, those with just four cores could be used for low-resolution phones.

The new CPU and GPU should find their way into chipmakers’ SoC (system-on-chip) products for delivery in phones next year, ARM says.

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