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New vector: power savings good; time to pay attention to performance

ARM Veers Off On A Whole New Vector

This may seem like inside baseball. I mean, who actually cares about processor architecture anyway? Half a dozen people? Well, if you’re one of them, read on.

The ARM architecture that dominates phones and other small things does so because it was always the most efficient. It did the most for the least electricity, which was the key to mobility, being, as it is, so dependent on battery life. Of course, ARM fits in stationary devices, too. That’s just gravy.

This key design principle — the most processing you can get within the electrical limit — won mobility. Intel tried valiantly with it’s Atom processor and other efforts, but its heart was never in it. Intel marched to a different principle — the lowest you could get the electrical power subject to maximizing performance demands. This difference in philosophy cost Intel the entire mobility market and continues to haunt it, threatening to cut the company out of clients for the growing Internet of Things (IoT) as well.

So, it is of great interest to me this week to see ARM veering toward performance maximization. In a world where you have to trade one for the other, ARM’s winning strategy has been to make power the constraint, leaving Intel to the performance vector — which, by the way, is why Intel dominates the server market, where computing performance per dollar is an obsession. But we’re talking about small things here.

For several years, ARM has been promising to come after one of Intel’s core markets, the PC notebook space, showing analysts charts with eyebrow-raising market share percentages on them. I think most of us looked at those with a somewhat jaundiced eye. But for some time now, Microsoft has been offering developers a version of Windows 10 for ARM. Just this week, a leak slipped into the media about a Lenovo Windows notebook with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 850, an ARM chip targeted directly at always-on notebooks. And there are already on the market a number of ARM Chromebooks — notebooks by any other name.

And so, just at the moment when Intel stumbles on its ace in the hole — process node technology leadership — ARM is stepping things up. Turns out that big foundries Samsung and TSMC have got processor roadmaps that take them down to 5nm, and ARM is riding right on down the curve with them. We’re talking commercial products here — in 2020. Which if you hadn’t noticed, is right around the corner. ARM, taking advantage of its partners’ improving foundry processes, is about to get the same benefit Intel made so much of in the past, believing that process technology trumps even bad design because ever less electricity is used with each decrease in geometry.

In concrete terms, ARM disclosed this week that it has development projects for the next two processor generations — called Deimos (7nm, volume in 2019) and Hercules (5nm, volume in 2020). This disclosure represents the first time the company is showing its roadmap to the public, and it is doing so partly to signal this new emphasis on performance. Meanwhile, Intel is still fiddling around with 10nm. Even accounting for industry differences in how gate widths are measured, Intel seems unable to maintain a similar cadence. ARM is claiming it has visibility out to 2020 on a 15% yearly performance improvement. The firm projects that ARM-based notebooks (including Chromebooks) will represent an important proportion of worldwide notebook shipments by 2023. Such claims don’t seem so far fetched anymore.

ARM already has price going for it, as Intel has to cover all its development and manufacturing costs and derive its entire profit from device sales alone, while ARM has a less-capital-intensive licensing business.

ARM’s recently announced 76 series — the Cortex-A76 CPU, Mali-G76 GPU, and Mali-V76 VPU — is expected to compete well with the performance of Intel’s i5, falling right in the middle of the x86 champion’s mainstream bread and butter.

One of the features of an ARM notebook — always on, 5G network capability — is particularly enticing. You mean, I can have it on, like a phone, and it won’t run out of battery for days and days? That, I can live with. The ability to deliver untethered, connected, immersive reality is what ARM is aiming for in notebooks.

With this stake in the ground on performance, and the ability to maintain its tight heat envelope all the while, ARM expects to make quite an impact on the notebook market. With a battery life measured in days rather than hours, an ARM notebook could be highly desirable. You might ask, who wouldn’t want one?

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