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Arm boosts speed of Cortex A9

Better application performance with faster chip

ARM Holdings has boosted the clock speed of its Cortex A9 processor to 2GHz, in a bid to offer better application performance while drawing less power.

ARM designs processor cores that are licensed to chip makers. The processors can be found in billions of mobile devices such as smartphones, and are making their way into devices such as netbooks.

Known mostly for low-power consumption, ARM wanted to show their processors are scalable and can provide the performance needed to run demanding applications like multimedia.

Most ARM-based chips in the market are perhaps 1GHz or a little more, and there are not many 2GHz ARM processors, said Nandan Nayampally, director of CPU marketing at ARM.

The latest processor is an attempt by ARM to show that it can raise clock speeds if needed.

"It's just changing the perception of ARM as being a low-cost, low-power processor not associated with performance. We're actually providing performance level very attractive to a large suite of applications," Nayampally said.

The speed increase could be useful for ARM chips used in devices such as netbooks and multimedia devices at home, he said.

The dual-core ARM processor runs at 2GHz while consuming 1.9 Watts of power. The processor delivered better performance than Intel's Atom N270 netbook chip operating at 1.6GHz, according to benchmarks provided by ARM. The speed could be scaled down to drop power consumption, Nayampally said.

"Is it always going to be used at 2GHz? Probably not," Nayampally said.

Ultimately, the clock speed of a chip will depend on customers who implement the design. Some ARM customers have already shown dual-core Cortex A9 chips.

It isn't a surprise that a dual-core ARM chip with a faster clock speed outperformed a single-core Intel Atom chip, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. "Upping the clock rate, going multicore buys you performance," he said.

ARM may be sending a powerful message about performance, but it faces stiff competition from Intel, McCarron said. Intel is trying to bring x86 down to lower power levels so its chips can go into devices that smartphones, a space that Arm has dominated for a long time.

"Intel is by design a paranoid culture. I'm sure a product like this is on their radar," McCarron said.

Intel is expected to share more details about its upcoming Moorestown platform for mobile devices, which includes a system-on-chip that integrates multiple components like the CPU and graphics core. Intel has said that Moorestown reduces idle power consumption by 50 times compared to its existing Menlow platform.

ARM is trying to build a larger software support around the architecture, Nayampally said.

The chip already supports multiple flavors of the Linux OS, but does not support Windows 7.

Microsoft declined comment on whether it had plans to port Windows 7 to the Arm architecture.

"Windows 7 does not support any ARM architecture. Windows works on both x86 and x64 platforms, which account for the majority of the world's netbooks, laptops and desktops. In the specialised devices space, where Arm is well suited, we offer the Windows Embedded CE platform," a Microsoft spokeswoman said.

The first implementation of the Cortex A9 chip design will go into smartphones with average power use of 200 to 300 milliwatts, Nayampally said.

In netbooks, Cortex A9 chips would draw close around 500 to 600 milliwatt for dual-core chip operating at 1GHz. Devices with chips based on the Cortex A9 design could appear as early as the first half of next year, ARM said.

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See also: Netbook makers switch to Arm chips at Computex


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