ARM promises laptop-level performance in 2019

Chip design company ARM has unveiled its latest high performance processor design, the Cortex-A76. The company claims that the new design is 35 percent faster than the current Cortex-A75, making for performance that’s comparable with Intel’s Skylake i5 processors.

ARM licenses both chip designs and the instruction set that the chips use.

Apple’s smartphones and tablets use the ARM instruction set with custom, in-house designs from Cupertino. Most other smartphones and tablets, however, use processors that are either unmodified ARM designs (for example, Mediatek does this), or lightly customized ARM designs (such as Qualcomm’s latest processors). Chips using the new design should hit the market in 2019.

The extra performance of the new design should help close the gap both with Apple’s custom designs—in most situations, they’re the fastest ARM chips on the market—and Intel’s x86 processors. Speaking to CNET, ARM’s lead processor architect Mike Filippo said that the new design would “do well” against Apple and roughly match the Intel Core i5-7300. That processor is a two-core, four-thread chip running at between 2.6 and 3.5 GHz using Intel’s Kaby Lake architecture. With more cache, Filippo says that even i7 parts should be within reach.

To put that into some context, the i5-7300 was released in the first quarter of 2017. Intel’s chips in 2019 should be somewhat faster (though just how much faster isn’t clear, given the company’s continued difficulties in making its 10nm manufacturing process work well), but an i5 from 2017 is unambiguously at the level of “good enough” performance for a wide range of laptop users. Moreover, this performance should be achieved at lower power cost than Intel’s 15W chips; ARM’s performance estimates are assuming a 7nm manufacturing process.

This combination of performance and power consumption should make the new chips compelling for Microsoft’s Always Connected Windows machines. The current ARM Windows machines are using the Cortex-A73 design in Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835. They’ve offered compelling battery life, but the performance has been significantly weaker than that of Intel systems. Cortex-A76 is about twice as fast as the A73, redressing that performance deficit without hurting the excellent battery life.

To get this performance, the new design is bigger and beefier than its predecessor. A76 can fetch and decode four instructions per cycle compared to three of A75. The A76 also has four integer units (three simple, one complex) compared to the two in A75. Across all its instruction units, the new design can dispatch eight instructions per cycle. Along with dual issue floating point and SIMD units, the result is a chip with greatly increased execution resources. It should achieve much better single threaded performance as a result.

Filippo says that the A76 design was all-new and that big performance gains should continue over the next few years.

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