Aggressively Pursuing New Markets

ARM gives us a glimpse of upcoming products and their performance.

ARM has had a pretty fascinating history, but for most of its time on this Earth it has not been a very public facing company. After the release of the iPhone and ARM’s dominance in the mobile market, they decided to push their PR efforts up a few notches. Now we finally were able to see some of the inner workings of a company that was once a little known low power CPU designer that licensed cores out to third parties.

The company was not always as aggressive as what we are seeing now. The mobile space for a long time was dominated by multiple architectures that all have eventually faded away. ARM held steady with design improvements and good customer relations that ensured that they would continue into the future. After the release of the original iPhone, the world changed. Happily for us, ARM changed as well. In previous years ARM would announce products, but they would be at least three years away and few people took notice of what they were up to. I originally started paying attention to ARM as I thought that their cores might have the ability to power mobile gaming and perhaps be integrated into future consoles so that there would be a unified architecture that these providers could lean upon. This was back when the 3DS and PSP were still selling millions of units.

This of course never came to pass as I had expected it to, but at least ARM did make it into the Nintendo Switch. ARM worked hard to quickly put faster, more efficient parts out the door. They also went on a buying spree and acquired several graphics startups that would eventually contribute to the now quite formidable Mali GPU family of products. Today we have an extensive lineup of parts that can be bundled into a tremendous amount of configurations. ARM has a virtual monopoly in the cellphone market because they have been willing to work with anyone who wants to license their designs, technologies, and architectures. This is actually a relatively healthy “monopoly” because the partners do the work to mix and match features to provide unique products to the marketplace. Architectural licensees like Apple, Qualcomm, and Samsung all differentiate their products as well and provide direct competition to the ARM designed cores that are licensed to other players.

Today we are seeing a new direction from ARM that has never been officially explored. We have been given a roadmap of the next two generations of products from the company that are intended to compete in not only the cellphone market, but also in the laptop market. ARM has thrown down the gauntlet and their sights are set on Intel and AMD. Not only is ARM showing us the codenames for these products, but also the relative performance.

ARM claims that the push for always on, always connected 5G devices is transformational to the industry and the need for performance and long battery life will be accentuated in these use cases. ARM feels that they have the product stack that is more able to address the upcoming 5G rollouts. The latest Cortex-A76 is a significant jump in performance from the previous A75 and A73 products. It is able to achieve this through a lot of clever design work even while utilizing similar process nodes as the previous cores. The very latest process nodes will allow it to further clock higher, perform better, yet still retain the low power consumption that ARM has staked its brand upon.

The next two generations of products are codenamed “Deimos” which will debut at 7nm in 2019 and then followed by “Hercules” which will be produced on 7nm and eventually 5nm in a 2020 timeframe. While leaks happened in the past with ARM about codenames and upcoming parts, this is the first time that ARM has ever released a public roadmap of where they are going with their compute cores. Not only are they releasing the names and what likely nodes they will be produced on, but also are showcasing what actual performance may look like and how they compare to well known Intel mobile chips.

ARM compares the performance of a 3 GHz A76 against the previous generation Intel i5-7300U. At 3 GHz the chip sits just below the turbo boosted 7300U at 3.5 GHz. This is running SPEC2006INT. There are several caveats to this result. First off this is a previous gen mobile part from Intel rather than their latest 8000 series released this past year. This is also a single threaded workload result so it does not address multi-threaded performance. Next is that it is a simulated results from ARM rather than having it run on an actual chip (for now). While this is not exactly an accurate test, it does show the potential for ARM to compete in a landscape that it has only barely set foot into.

If ARM can back up these results with real hardware then Intel has a strong potential competitor on its hands. The Cortex-A76 result was projected to be in the sub 5 watt TDP range, and that includes the entire SOC that would be running. We would likely see configurations that could extend to 4 x A76 cores to hybrids like 2 x A76 and 2 x A55. These SOCs with integrated graphics could easily fit in the sub-5 watt TDP range while clocking the cores at the highest speeds. Consider that most cellphone SOCs are typically sub 1 watt TDP parts. In a larger chassis with better cooling options and a much larger battery, ARM SOCs could potentially provide near the performance of the latest Intel parts, but at under a third of the power dissipated. This means cooler running laptops with a far greater battery life than what the competition can provide.

We have seen ARM products in laptops as well as Windows 10 on ARM. With a virtual stranglehold on the cellphone market, ARM is looking to leverage its expertise and newly expanded marketing program on this very lucrative market. ARM is not currently announcing any new directives at this time, but they did hint that at the upcoming ARM TechCon they will be aggressively pushing the laptop platform.

ARM has a long way to go before they can get significant marketshare in the very competitive laptop market. Not only is Intel firmly entrenched, but AMD is also looking to make strides in this area with their latest mobile Zen based parts. Neither of those companies are standing still with Intel having a comprehensive roadmap leveraging improvements in design as well as advances on their 14nm processes. AMD will be releasing Zen2 based parts next year and will utilize advanced 7nm process nodes from their foundry partners as well.

If ARM’s performance estimates hold true and they can achieve a user experience competitive with Intel and AMD, then they have a very good chance of claiming a significant piece of the pie. The combination of competitive performance, better battery endurance, native Windows support, and the integration of 4G and 5G modems can give them an edge on the competition. It will be a challenge to change hearts and minds, but in the end features and price points can convince many to switch over. ARM is certainly entering a new era with their rapid expansions fueled by the SoftBank investment. The company certainly has its sights set on continuing this growth in many new directions.