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40nm ARM chip supports up to four cores

Oct 21, 2009 — by Eric Brown — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 9 views

ARM Holdings has spun a Cortex processor design for feature phones and other low-cost mobile devices that supplants its ARM926EJ-S and ARM1176JZ-S cores while offering over twice the speed and about twice the power efficiency. The 40nm-fabricated ARM Cortex-A5 MPCore is available for uniprocessor designs or for SoCs with as many as four cores, says ARM.

Taking aim at the low end of the market targeted by Intel's Atom, the Cortex-A5 is touted as being "the smallest, lowest power ARM multicore processor capable of delivering the Internet to the widest possible range of devices." Target devices include ultra low cost handsets, feature phones, and smart mobile devices, as well as pervasive embedded, consumer, and industrial devices, says ARM.

The Cortex-A5 is claimed to be fully application compatible with the Cortex-A8 (widely used in smartphone and consumer electronics SoCs like the Texas Instruments OMAP3x and Freescale i.MX51) and the newer, multicore-enabled Cortex-A9 processors, which together take on the higher end implementations of Intel's Atom and next year's Moorestown.

The Cortex-A5 is said to support Android, Adobe Flash, Java Platform Standard Edition (Java SE), JavaFX, Linux, Microsoft Windows CE/Mobile, Symbian, and Ubuntu Linux, "along with more than 600 ARM Connected Community members." Judging by the supplied testimonials, the new chips seem to be of particular interest to real-time operating system (RTOS) vendors (see farther below).

MPCore, TrustZone, and Neon

The A5 appears to lack the superscalar technology of the A8 and A9 models, which allows those processors to provide instruction-level parallelism for greater performance. Like the multi-core enabled A9 and ARM11, however, the A5 supports ARM's MPCore interconnect technology, which is also said to improve performance on multi-core systems. According to ARM, MPCore-enabled processors have been licensed by more than 15 semiconductor companies.

The Cortex-A5 processor also integrates Cortex technologies like ARM's TrustZone security technology, and the Neon multimedia processing engine. Neon is a 128-bit SIMD (Single Instruction, Multiple Data) architecture extension aimed at multimedia acceleration.

Faster than ARM11, but with an ARM9 footprint

The uniprocessor version of the Cortex-A5 is said to provide a migration path for licensees of the venerable and ubiquitous ARMv5-based ARM926EJ-S core, which is found in such low-power embedded mainstays as the Atmel's AT91SAM9 family of processors. The Cortex-A5 is also billed as a successor to the faster, ARMv6-based ARM1176JZ-S, which supports multi-core designs.

Comparing uniprocessor versions, the Cortex-A5 is touted as delivering better performance than the ARM1176JZ-S within the raw power and silicon area footprint of the ARM926EJ-S. The Cortex-A5 uniprocessor also supplies "nearly twice the power-efficiency" of the earlier cores, says ARM. The company adds that performance is "further enhanced" in the multi-core versions of the Cortex-A5, which utilize MPCore.

ARM's announcement was devoid of further specifics on performance and power efficiency, but ComputerWorld's Eric Lai, reporting from the ARM TechCon3 conference in Santa Clara, Calif., said that each ARM core will run at up to 1GHz, or up to three times faster than the ARM926EJ-S.

Lai also quotes ARM product manager Travis Lanier as saying that the Cortex-A5 consumes one-third the power of the ARM1176JZ-S, therefore extending battery life "by at least double, if not more." The story further quotes Lanier as saying that the tiny chip will cost about a fifth of what it takes to fabricate the ARM926EJ-S.

ARM announced that the Cortex-A5 would ship as both a general-purpose processor running at 1GHz, consuming about 80 milliwatts, as well as an ultra low-power version that runs at 500MHz, says the story. Cortex-A8-based devices are expected to start arriving in 2011, writes Lai.

Supporting tools for the Cortex-A5

ARM is supporting the Cortex-A5 with a "High Performance Optimization Package" of physical IP designed for a 40nm (TSMC 40LP) process, says the company. The optimization package integrates ARM logic libraries featuring multi-channel design with optimized memory instances engineered specifically for the Cortex-A5, says ARM. The package also offers multi-Vt and overdrive implementation techniques, which are said to improve performance.

Also available are the ARM AMBA (advanced microprocessor bus architecture) and CoreSight system development IP and tools packages, which are said to help engineers efficiently move, store, and observe data between cores and memory, as well as to optimize performance and power consumption on Cortex-based SoC (system-on-chip) designs. AMBA enables system designers to maximize bandwidth utilization, reduce latency, and reduce time to market for SoC designs, while ARM CoreSight provides on-chip debug and real-time trace visibility, says the company.

ARM also supplies its Mali-200, Mali-400MP graphics processing units (GPUs), as well as its Mali-VE3, Mali-VE6 Video Engines for accelerating and optimizing video and multimedia playback. ARM'S "Fast Models," meanwhile, are billed as "instruction-accurate models ideal for creating, running and optimizing software in simulation."

In addition, the company supplies its RealView Development Suite (RVDS) 4.0 Pro, which combines the ARM Compiler and ARM Profiler. All these tools are said to be backed up by the ARM Active Assist training and on-site system-design advisory service for licensees.

One of the early licensees of the Cortex-A5 is Samsung, says ARM. Stated Yiwan Wong, VP, Strategic Marketing Team, System LSI Division, Samsung Electronics, "This new Cortex-A5 processor from ARM will allow us to further broaden the range of SOC products we can offer to our customers to address the needs of the expanding mobile device market space."

Stated Nathan Brookwood, research fellow at Insight 64, "The performance of the Cortex-A5 processor, when combined with Adobe's recently-announced support for Cortex-A profile processors in Flash Player 10.1, will allow users of ARM processor-based systems to view the same internet video content previously accessible only to users of x86-based systems."

Stated Eric Schorn, VP of marketing, Processor Division, ARM, "With the launch of the Cortex-A5 processor we are providing the pervasive Internet with unprecedented power-efficiency and cost-effectiveness."

Further testimonial quotes were offered from Cadence Design Systems (Sparrow multi-core processor), eSOL (eCROS RTOS and middleware), Express Logic (ThreadX RTOS), Green Hills Software (Integrity RTOS), Ittiam (audio and video codecs), Lauterbach GmbH (PowerDebug and PowerTrace), Magma (Talus 1.1 IC design platform), Mentor Graphics (Nucleus RTOS, Linux, and Android tools), QNX (Neutrino RTOS), Sun Microsystems (Java SE and JavaFX), Symbian Foundation (Symbian OS), and Synopsys (Lynx Design System).


Multiple lead licensees are already working on Cortex-A5 designs, and the technology will be available for general licensing in the fourth quarter. According to ComputerWorld, the first Cortex-A8-based products will arrive in 2011.

More information should eventually show up on ARM's Cortex page, here. The ComputerWorld article on the Cortex-A8 may be found here.

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