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ARM launches Cortex A-72 platform, powering flagship smartphones in 2016

Mark Hachman | Feb. 4, 2015
ARM, the CPU company that powers virtually all smartphones, announces the Cortex A-72 chip design as well as a new graphics core.

Jem Davies, an ARM fellow and the vice president of technology, told PCWorld that ARM's close ties with its customers and foundry customers mean that the performance estimates ARM delivered Tuesday will be pretty close to what you'll see in the final product. Some companies will hustle products to market, while others hold them back to tweak them until the performance is just right. Either approach is just fine, he said, and ARM's neutrality benefits the industry as a whole.

For example, Davies said that he personally believed phablets would fail badly. Instead, the smartphone industry sold millions. "History proved that the market doesn't care what I think," he said, as proof that ARM shouldn't decide what products to design for. "So the lesson to be learned here is that we shouldn't dictate what our partners do with our technology."

Intel's interconnect delayed Broadwell, analysts say
The new Cortex is an ARM v8-A, 64-bit chip, meaning that it will see a performance boost if paired with Google's new 64-bit Lollipop operating system-and not, if it's forced to run a 32-bit OS. Today, however, Lollipop is relatively unused.  According to Davies, that's not a problem; the Cortex-A72 is a very good 32-bit processor as well.

While the main Cortex application processor and the Mali GPU will be the two main selling points for Cortex-A72, ARM also announced a CCI-500 interconnect, a wider, more efficient pipe feeding the chip with data; and optimizations for TSMC's 16-nm FinFET+ 3D transistor technology.

FinFET technology essentially arranges transistors in a 3D array, with Samsung, Globalfoundries, and TSMC chasing Intel. According to Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight64, the shift to FinFET technology itself should help boost the performance per watt each chip consumes.

But Intel ended up delaying the release of its first FinFET-based 14-nm chips because they migrated the interconnect and the transistor to the 14-nm technology. Those chips, also known as "Broadwell" or the fifth-generation Core chips, were almost a year late as a consequence.

Intel's rivals learned from its mistake, Brookwood said. "Because TSMC and Globalfoundries came late to the 3D transistor party, they decided to change the transistor architecture without changing the interconnect architecture... and that has an interesting side effect. Once they get the 3D transistor working, the wiring's the same as it was before. That means that people with 20-nm designs don't have to change the wiring," meaning it's simpler and faster to port over existing designs, he said.

Customers need performance, now
ARM brought a number of industry partners on stage to help talk about the need for the additional performance the Cortex-A72 will bring. Anuj Gosalia, director of development for mobile and PC software for Facebook's Oculus technology, said that Oculus could use the additional horsepower now.


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