Looking Towards 2016

ARM expects a good and interesting 2016 in the mobile SOC market

ARM invited us to a short conversation with them on the prospects of 2016.  The initial answer as to how they feel the upcoming year will pan out is, “Interesting”.  We covered a variety of topics ranging from VR to process technology.  ARM is not announcing any new products at this time, but throughout this year they will continue to push their latest Mali graphics products as well as the Cortex A72.

Trends to Watch in 2016

The one overriding trend that we will see is that of “good phones at every price point”.  ARM’s IP scales from very low to very high end mobile SOCs and their partners are taking advantage of the length and breadth of these technologies.  High end phones based on custom cores (Apple, Qualcomm) will compete against those licensing the Cortex A72 and A57 parts for their phones.  Lower end options that are less expensive and pull less power (which then requires less battery) will flesh out the midrange and budget parts.  Unlike several years ago, the products from top to bottom are eminently usable and relatively powerful products.

Camera improvements will also take center stage for many products and continue to be a selling point and an area of differentiation for competitors.  Improved sensors and software will obviously be the areas where the ARM partners will focus on, but ARM is putting some work into this area as well.  Post processing requires quite a bit of power to do quickly and effectively.  ARM is helping here to leverage the Neon SIMD engine and leveraging the power of the Mali GPU.

4K video is becoming more and more common as well with handhelds, and ARM is hoping to leverage that capability in shooting static pictures.  A single 4K frame is around 8 megapixels in size.  So instead of capturing video, the handheld can achieve a “best shot” type functionality.  So the phone captures the 4K video and then users can choose the best shot available to them in that period of time.  This is a simple idea that will be a nice feature for those with a product that can capture 4K video.

Qualcomm features their “Hexagon DSP” as a fairly general processing unit that deals primarily with workloads like post processing photos and real-time video effects.  It is aimed to be a very efficient number cruncher that can address a variety of workloads, but those of course will not cover everything.  ARM does feature some DSP functionality in their lower end Cortex M SOCs that can leverage the performance of those parts in very specific and power efficient operations.  For ARM’s larger SOCs they are relying on the Neon units as well as the GPU to cover most of those functions.  The software support for these units is common as compared to more specialized DSPs.  Qualcomm has opened up the functionality of their Hexagon units to 3rd party software developers, but so far that push is just beginning.

The only current ARM product line (Cortex M series) that integrate DSPs to increase performance in specific workloads while keeping power consumption low.

Another aspect not often considered is that a secondary DSP is not always needed.  ARM has a very large portfolio of products that can actually allow their partners to integrate a “hidden” Cortex processor that will take over some of these functions.  In this case a phone producer would create their own SOC, put in a smaller Cortex core that is not detailed, and direct their propriety software to leverage that extra core and tune the software to take the most advantage out of it.  I would not doubt that this is already in play, especially with the companies pushing their cameras as a big selling point and differentiator.

VR is another area that ARM is looking at and addressing.  Samsung has really taken a pretty good lead on the competition with their partnership with Oculus.  HTC is working with Valve to implement their PC centric VR option.  ARM has some thoughts and ideas on this arena as well.  ARM feels that there are three basic areas: augmented reality for the professional market, gaming and graphics heavy workloads, and VR video playback.

Samsung is at the forefront of Android VR, but ARM looks to help support this growing ecosystem.

Augmented reality does not necessarily need to push the pixels, so it can be implemented for more professional applications (complex surgery, engineering/product visualization) without requiring heavy duty graphics hardware.  Gaming at 4K and 120 fps is currently impossible with current mobile SOCs and is a stretch for even top end, high powered PC hardware.  More simple titles may be able to work on some SOCs, but this is an area that just is not going to move forward for a couple of years.  Finally we have VR video, an area that can be enjoyed now with current and upcoming mobile SOCs.  Running video at 4K is already possible on high end phones and will be an area to pursue once more VR hardware is available for consumer use.

Process technology is an interesting area for ARM.  As we have seen over the past few years, ARM has weathered the process delays far better than other 3rd party silicon designers.  Due to their primary thrust of “low power or bust” ARM has been able to utilize design to get around limitations in process technology.  Now that we are finally getting to where we have several next generation process nodes open for production, we are seeing A72 parts being fabricated on 28 nm processes as well as down to the latest 14 and 16 nm FF lines.  Of interest to me was their thoughts on the latest GLOBALFOUNDRIES 22 nm FDSOI.  ARM certainly supports it, but their partners will be the ones to actually implement their products on that process if it fits their needs.

Expect more "interesting" products this next year that encompass new visual technologies while still being powered by ARM IP.

While ARM may not release a major new part this year, they are staying very active in supporting and accentuating their shipping IP with improved software and design tools.  2016 does look to be an “interesting” year in that we will see a wide variety of products powered by ARM that could encompass many next generation technologies that leverage the compute potential and power saving features of the IP.

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