ARM's latest chips hint Apple iPad, iPhone plans

By Jonny Evans

Apple’s [AAPL] future iPads, iPhones and other mobile devices will deliver unimaginable battery life and much-improved performance, if developments at the company's processor design partner, ARM, are to be seen as harbingers of the future.


[ABOVE: ARM's Cortex-A7 processor design diagram]

Understand history

You can sometimes get a glimpse of the future by taking a peek at the past, and when it comes to Apple and its mobile products, it's always worth taking a look at what's happening at chip designer, ARM.

ARM this week: "Announced the ARM Cortex-A7 MPCore processor -- the most energy-efficient application class processor ARM has ever developed, and big.LITTLE processing -- a flexible approach that redefines the traditional power and performance relationship."

A single Cortex-A7 processor delivers 5x the energy-efficiency and is one fifth the size of the Cortex-A8 processor, while providing significantly greater performance.

Of course, we can't be sure Apple will opt for the ARM design as its reference design in future iterations of Apple's A-series chips, but it seems pretty likely, given that its two previous processors (A4 and A5) have been highly re-imagined versions of previous ARM processors. Even more interesting, these new processors may even allow Apple to lop a few more dollars off of its product prices...


TSMC connection?

It is also interesting that this week ARM announced that it had worked with TSMC to tape out the first 20nm ARM Cortex-A15 MPCore processor. This is interesting because some previous rumors have claimed TSMC is working to produce small process chips for Apple iDevices, though these claims have become more contrary in recent weeks. TSMC's 20nm process provides more than a 2X performance increase over preceding generations.

Given Apple's focus on delivering end-to-end media-focused experiences within its family of compatible mobile devices, including the current iteration of the Apple TV, it is interesting that the TSCM process can deliver on so many fronts:

"The Cortex-A15 processor's low-power, high-performance and advanced feature set is perfectly suited to 20nm process implementations. Resulting SoCs will be ideal for a wide variety of markets, including smartphone, tablet, mobile computing, high-end digital home, servers, and wireless infrastructure."

The division bell?

I'm seeing a potential for  a parting of ways here. At present, all Apple's devices eventually migrate to the next-generation processor, so the A4 iPhone became the A5 iPhone. The A4 iPad became the A5 iPad. But, with two distinct chip solutions available to it, will Apple diversify its chip line-up?

Will it perhaps exploit the power of the Cortex-A15 to deliver processors for future iPads (and, potentially, Macs), while using the ARM Cortex-A7 reference build within future smartphones?

This would lend excellence in computing power to the iPad and deliver good performance and phenomenal battery life to the iPhone.

It's all speculatative, of course.

At present Apple has A4 and A5 processors in production for its products. Because it sells millions of these products it benefits from economies of scale when manufacturing its processors -- diversifying the family more would make the production process more expensive. That's true, but with millions of devices sold worldwide, it is possible Apple doesn't need that economy of scale as much as it once did.

Apple likes options

Whatever the plan -- and Apple doesn't always fully commit to a plan until the last minute -- the company's engineers will be looking to maximize performance and battery life in future Apple devices. Already best in class in both departments, iPhones and iPads are cleaning up in their respective fields.

Wired confirms the way Apple deals with strategy:

"Years ago, I heard the back-story on Apple's switch to Intel first-hand from some folks on the IBM side of things, and what I learned was that Steve Jobs agonized over this decision and waited until the morning of the keynote before pulling the trigger on this move. He actually went into that day with two keynote presentations prepared: one for a PowerPC-based product line, and one for The Switch. When he pulled out The Switch presentation, the IBM team was absolutely as stunned as the rest of the world, as was the P.A. Semi team who had been separately assured by Jobs that their dual-core PowerPC part would find its way into Apple portables."

It is worth considering that ARM's Cortex-A7 is a strong attempt to create a System on Chip (SoC) that meets the "conflicting consumer demand for devices with both higher-performance AND extended battery life."


Big.LITTLE processing

To help enable this, ARM has introduced Big.LITTLE processing. This pairs the best of the high-performance Cortex-A15 MPCore and ultra-efficient Cortex-A7 processors. "Big.LITTLE processing allows devices to seamlessly select the right processor for the right task, based on performance requirements. Importantly, this dynamic selection is transparent to the application software or middleware running on the processors," it explains.

It is clear that ARM wants to continue breaking Intel in the smartphone and tablet markets with its new processor designs. And, given that Apple's are the biggest-selling products in both of those industries, that relationship with Cupertino cannot be so far from ARM's mind:

"As smartphones and tablets continue to evolve into users' primary compute device, consumers are demanding performance as well as the always on, always connected service they expect. The challenge for our industry and the ARM ecosystem is how to deliver on this," said Mike Inglis, Executive Vice President, Processor Division, ARM, in a statement.

"The introduction of Cortex-A7 and big.LITTLE addresses this challenge and extends ARM's technology leadership by setting a new standard for energy-efficient processors and redefining the traditional power and performance relationship."

It will be interesting to see just how fast future Apple devices become, how energy efficient, and how much more capable these things will get as they move toward becoming productivity solutions in a post-PC age.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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