ARM just showed 2021’s smartphone CPUs, led by the powerful Cortex-X1

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ARM just showed 2021’s smartphone CPUs, led by the powerful Cortex-X1

ARM has announced the next generation of smartphone processors, set to deliver up to 20 percent or greater performance than the prior generation. It includes something special: a new Cortex-X1 design, an optimized version designed for “ultimate performance.”

In the smartphone industry, ARM designs its Cortex CPUs, Mali GPUs, and Ethos machine-learning processors, then licenses them to companies like Qualcomm. (This differs from the PC chip business, where AMD and Intel keep their designs proprietary—and Intel manufactures its own CPUs as well.) Those chip designers, in turn, are permitted to customize and enhance them, depending upon their license terms.

The new cores—the Cortex-A78, the Mali-G78, and the Ethos-N78—will debut in smartphones shipping in 2021, ARM executives said. The company is promising that the Cortex-A78 will deliver 20 percent greater sustained performance over the prior generation; the Mali-G78, 25 percent better overall performance; and the Ethos-N78, 25 percent more performance efficiency. 

arm a78 overview perf slide ARM

Then there’s the ARM Cortex-X1, which ARM is promising will deliver 30 percent peak performance over the prior Cortex-A generation. This, according to ARM, represents a new category of “off roadmap” performance, requiring specific engineering collaboration with partners. It sounds like we’ll be hearing more about the first fruits of the Cortex-X1 partnership within the coming weeks.

“It answers the question of how much performance can be pushed for this generation when you’re not so constrained by the usual power area constraints,” Paul Williamson, vice president and general manager of ARM’s client line of business, said of the Cortex-X1. “It’s really targeting flagship smartphones and larger-screen devices. And given the silicon area and dissipated power, it’s not really something we expect to see in every device.”

Smartphone makers have a choice between using the new ARM cores to maximize performance, or to deliver better battery life with the same performance as the prior generation. This is actually the angle Williamson took when explaining the new cores, as the three deliver “more out of the same power budget as last year,” he said.

More on the Cortex-A78

Williamson said the A78 was specifically designed for the demands of 5G, with use cases that included how fast applications launch, and how responsive webpages are when scrolling. “Sustained performance in a device with limited power will avoid power throttling in really high-performance applications,” Williamson said. “So you’ll get less lag and less framerate drops.”

arm cortex a78 peformance ARM

A summary of the ARM Cortex-A78’s performance.

Like the prior Cortex-A77, the Cortex-A78 will consist of what ARM calls its big.LITTLE octacore architecture, with four high-performance A78 cores and four A55 cores optimized for long battery life. ARM said that a Cortex-A78 core running at 3GHz would deliver 20 percent more sustained, single-core performance than the Cortex-A77 core running at 2.6GHz, assuming 1 watt per core. The performance is based on simulated estimates.

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