It is microprocessors all the time right now, with Linley last week. Today ARM announced the next generation Cortex-A17 core. It is a development built on the Cortex-A12 core, itself built on A7 (which is the current volume leader). ARM says that it is 60% faster than the A7 core, although I’m sure a lot of that gain is a process node change and not just architecture, but I could be wrong (A7 is single issue, I think, and A12 is dual). The timing isn’t coincidental, Mobile World Congress is coming up in Barcelona in a couple of weeks.
The mobile market for processors is fragmenting since different price, performance and area targets are needed for different markets:
- the very high end: companies like Apple and Qualcomm license the ARM architecture and build their own processors. For example, Apple had the first 64-bit ARM processor in production (before any of the licensees of ARM’s own implementation)
- the high end: Cortex A-57 and A-53 big.little implementations with a good mix of high performance and low power
- the middle end which seems to be where the A-17 is positioned
- I’m not sure if A7 is obsolete or is still a good solution for the low end especially in something like TSMC’s 28LP process. It can also do big.little with A15.
The lead customer for the A-17 is Mediatek. They announced an 8-core big.little A17/A7 application processor with on-chip 150Mbps LTE modem expected to be in volume production in second half of the year. I believe this is also the first big.little chip that allows all 8 cores to be used at the same time.
There is a process war (at least of words) going on between TSMC and Intel, along with a processor war between ARM and Intel.
Intel very publicly had graphs showing that Intel’s wafer price continues to come down linearly but TSMC’s is taking a pause. TSMC, most unusually for them and for Taiwanese companies in general, addressed this and denied it in their latest conference call. Cynics have suggested that the reason Intel show linear decline (there are no numbers on the graphs) is because their wafer cost is so high that if they only get it a bit closer to TSMC’s then they can make the graphs look good. The numbers that I have heard are that Intel’s wafer cost is as much as 30% higher than TSMC’s.
Intel’s high end server cores have unparalleled performance on single thread, so perfect for some sorts of datacenters. But as I said last week, for some datacenters other aspects are more important: throughput, power, cost. For mobile, the high end is mature and in a low growth phase. Apple, Qualcomm and Samsung already own the bulk of the market. The low and mid end is where all the smartphone growth will come and it is all about cost. The goal is an unsubsidized smartphone at $200 or less next year. If Intel’s wafer cost really is 30% higher than TSMC’s then it won’t be cost-competitive.
Another Intel weakness is that it doesn’t have an on-chip LTE modem. Its LTE modem is a mixture of technology it acquired from Infineon and Fujitsu but it is manufactured by TSMC while the application processors for mobile are all on Intel’s own processes. Qualcomm, Mediatek, Broadcom and perhaps other all have integrated modems already. Intel’s plan is to have an integrated modem for the low end in the second half of this year, but still manufactured by (according to their investor day presentations) “external foundry” which I assume means TSMC although they’d bite their tongue rather than say so explicitly. At the high end they will have a two-chip solution with their modem and a 14nm Atom called Moorefield. But I’m not sure who would buy it, maybe some tablet vendors (most of which are sold without modems anyway, at least today).
The jury remains out on whether there is an enterprise “surface” tablet market where Intel architecture compatibility is important. I have always felt that it wasn’t since I don’t feel the need to run big spreadsheets on my iPad or enter new powerpoints. If there is, then Intel could be successful. In any case, it depends on what enterprise IT managers think, not what I do.
ARM didn’t just announce the A17, they also announced two new GPU cores targeted at the same mid-range markets: Mali-T720 GPU and Mali-V500 video processor which are scalable, energy-efficient compact multimedia solutions tand are complemented by the existing Mali-DP500 display processor.
ARM press release is here.