In bid to upstage Intel, Arm boosts processor speed

Company aims to change the perception of Arm being a low-cost, low-power processor not associated with performance; its Cortex A9 now runs at 2GHz

Arm Holdings on Wednesday raised the clock speed of its Cortex A9 processor to 2GHz, with the aim of boosting application performance while drawing less power.

Arm designs processor cores that are licensed to chipmakers. The processors can be found in billions of mobile devices like smartphones and are making their way into devices such as netbooks. Known mostly for low-power consumption, Arm wanted to show its processors are scalable and can provide the performance needed to run demanding applications like multimedia.

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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 that 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.

Though Arm chips have long held an advantage over Intel with respect to power, Arm needs better software support around the chip architecture. There is a strong software infrastructure around the x86 architecture, which could help push Intel chips into many mobile devices, McCarron said.

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.

There is a compelling case for Microsoft to port Windows 7 to Arm, considering the growing volumes of Arm-designed chips appearing in devices, Nayampally said. However, porting the OS is a decision Microsoft has to ultimately make.

"That's a business decision Microsoft will choose to make or not make given their consideration," Nayampally said.

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 specialized devices space, where Arm is well suited, we offer the Windows Embedded CE platform," a Microsoft spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail.

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 milliwatts for dual-core chip operating at 1GHz. The company already has 15 partners including Toshiba, Nvidia, and Samsung, and devices with chips based on the Cortex A9 design could appear as early as the first half of next year, Arm said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.