10nm Sooner Than Expected?
It seems only yesterday that we had the first major GPU released on 16nm FF+ and now we are talking about ARM about to receive their first 10nm FF test chips! Well, in fact it was yesterday that NVIDIA formally released performance figures on the latest GeForce GTX 1080 which is based on TSMC’s 16nm FF+ process technology. Currently TSMC is going full bore on their latest process node and producing the fastest current graphics chip around. It has taken the foundry industry as a whole a lot longer to develop FinFET technology than expected, but now that they have that piece of the puzzle seemingly mastered they are moving to a new process node at an accelerated rate.
TSMC’s 10nm FF is not well understood by press and analysts yet, but we gather that it is more of a marketing term than a true drop to 10 nm features. Intel has yet to get past 14nm and does not expect 10 nm production until well into next year. TSMC is promising their version in the second half of 2016. We cannot assume that TSMC’s version will match what Intel will be doing in terms of geometries and electrical characteristics, but we do know that it is a step past TSMC’s 16nm FF products. Lithography will likely get a boost with triple patterning exposure. My guess is that the back end will also move away from the “20nm metal” stages that we see with 16nm. All in all, it should be an improved product from what we see with 16nm, but time will tell if it can match the performance and density of competing lines that bear the 10nm name from Intel, Samsung, and GLOBALFOUNDRIES.
ARM has a history of porting their architectures to new process nodes, but they are being a bit more aggressive here than we have seen in the past. It used to be that ARM would announce a new core or technology, and it would take up to two years to be introduced into the market. Now we are seeing technology announcements and actual products hitting the scenes about nine months later. With the mobile market continuing to grow we expect to see products quicker to market still.
The company designed a simplified test chip to tape out and send to TSMC for test production on the aforementioned 10nm FF process. The chip was taped out in December, 2015. The design was shipped to TSMC for mask production and wafer starts. ARM is expecting the finished wafers to arrive this month.
Looking Towards 2016
ARM invited us to a short conversation with them on the prospects of 2016. The initial answer as to how they feel the upcoming year will pan out is, “Interesting”. We covered a variety of topics ranging from VR to process technology. ARM is not announcing any new products at this time, but throughout this year they will continue to push their latest Mali graphics products as well as the Cortex A72.
Trends to Watch in 2016
The one overriding trend that we will see is that of “good phones at every price point”. ARM’s IP scales from very low to very high end mobile SOCs and their partners are taking advantage of the length and breadth of these technologies. High end phones based on custom cores (Apple, Qualcomm) will compete against those licensing the Cortex A72 and A57 parts for their phones. Lower end options that are less expensive and pull less power (which then requires less battery) will flesh out the midrange and budget parts. Unlike several years ago, the products from top to bottom are eminently usable and relatively powerful products.
Camera improvements will also take center stage for many products and continue to be a selling point and an area of differentiation for competitors. Improved sensors and software will obviously be the areas where the ARM partners will focus on, but ARM is putting some work into this area as well. Post processing requires quite a bit of power to do quickly and effectively. ARM is helping here to leverage the Neon SIMD engine and leveraging the power of the Mali GPU.
4K video is becoming more and more common as well with handhelds, and ARM is hoping to leverage that capability in shooting static pictures. A single 4K frame is around 8 megapixels in size. So instead of capturing video, the handheld can achieve a “best shot” type functionality. So the phone captures the 4K video and then users can choose the best shot available to them in that period of time. This is a simple idea that will be a nice feature for those with a product that can capture 4K video.
ARM Releases Cortex-A72 for Licensing
On February 3rd, ARM announced a slew of new designs, including the Cortex A72. Few details were shared with us, but what we learned was that it could potentially redefine power and performance in the ARM ecosystem. Ryan was invited to London to participate in a deep dive of what ARM has done to improve its position against market behemoth Intel in the very competitive mobile space. Intel has a leg up on process technology with their 14nm Tri-Gate process, but they are continuing to work hard in making their x86 based processors more power efficient, while still maintaining good performance. There are certain drawbacks to using an ISA that is focused on high performance computing rather than being designed from scratch to provide good performance with excellent energy efficiency.
ARM has been on a pretty good roll with their Cortex A9, A7, A15, A17, A53, and A57 parts over the past several years. These designs have been utilized in a multitude of products and scenarios, with configurations that have scaled up to 16 cores. While each iteration has improved upon the previous, ARM is facing the specter of Intel’s latest generation, highly efficient x86 SOCs based on the 2nd gen 14nm Tri-Gate process. Several things have fallen into place for ARM to help them stay competitive, but we also cannot ignore the experience and design hours that have led to this product.
(Editor's Note: During my time with ARM last week it became very apparent that it is not standing still, not satisfied with its current status. With competition from Intel, Qualcomm and others ramping up over the next 12 months in both mobile and server markets, ARM will more than ever be depedent on the evolution of core design and GPU design to maintain advantages in performance and efficiency. As Josh will go into more detail here, the Cortex-A72 appears to be an incredibly impressive design and all indications and conversations I have had with others, outside of ARM, believe that it will be an incredibly successful product.)
Cortex A72: Highest Performance ARM Cortex
ARM has been ubiquitous for mobile applications since it first started selling licenses for their products in the 90s. They were found everywhere it seemed, but most people wouldn’t recognize the name ARM because these chips were fabricated and sold by licensees under their own names. Guys like Ti, Qualcomm, Apple, DEC and others all licensed and adopted ARM technology in one form or the other.
ARM’s importance grew dramatically with the introduction of increased complexity cellphones and smartphones. They also gained attention through multimedia devices such as the Microsoft Zune. What was once a fairly niche company with low performance, low power offerings became the 800 pound gorilla in the mobile market. Billions of chips are sold yearly based on ARM technology. To stay in that position ARM has worked aggressively on continually providing excellent power characteristics for their parts, but now they are really focusing on overall performance and capabilities to address, not only the smartphone market, but also the higher performance computing and server spaces that they want a significant presence in.
ARM Releases Top Cortex Design to Partners
ARM has an interesting history of releasing products. The company was once in the shadowy background of the CPU world, but with the explosion of mobile devices and its relevance in that market, ARM has had to adjust how it approaches the public with their technologies. For years ARM has announced products and technology, only to see it ship one to two years down the line. It seems that with the increased competition in the marketplace from Apple, Intel, NVIDIA, and Qualcomm ARM is now pushing to license out its new IP in a way that will enable their partners to achieve a faster time to market.
The big news this time is the introduction of the Cortex A72. This is a brand new design that will be based on the ARMv8-A instruction set. This is a 64 bit capable processor that is also backwards compatible with 32 bit applications programmed for ARMv7 based processors. ARM does not go into great detail about the product other than it is significantly faster than the previous Cortex-A15 and Cortex-A57.
The previous Cortex-A15 processors were announced several years back and made their first introduction in late 2013/early 2014. These were still 32 bit processors and while they had good performance for the time, they did not stack up well against the latest A8 SOCs from Apple. The A53 and A57 designs were also announced around two years ago. These are the first 64 bit designs from ARM and were meant to compete with the latest custom designs from Apple and Qualcomm’s upcoming 64 bit part. We are only now just seeing these parts make it into production, and even Qualcomm has licensed the A53 and A57 designs to insure a faster time to market for this latest batch of next-generation mobile devices.
We can look back over the past five years and see that ARM is moving forward in announcing their parts and then having their partners ship them within a much shorter timespan than we were used to seeing. ARM is hoping to accelerate the introduction of its new parts within the next year.
NVIDIA's Tegra X1
NVIDIA seems to like begin on a one year cycle with their latest Tegra products. Many years ago we were introduced to the Tegra 2, and the year after that the Tegra 3, and the year after that the Tegra 4. Well, NVIDIA did spice up their naming scheme to get away from the numbers (not to mention the potential stigma of how many of those products actually made an impact in the industry). Last year's entry was the Tegra K1 based on the Kepler graphics technology. These products were interesting due to the use of the very latest, cutting edge graphics technology in a mobile/low power format. The Tegra K1 64 bit variant used two “Denver” cores that were actually designed by NVIDIA.
While technically interesting, the Tegra K1 series have made about the same impact as the previous versions. The Nexus 9 was the biggest win for NVIDIA with these parts, and we have heard of a smattering of automotive companies using Tegra K1 in those applications. NVIDIA uses the Tegra K1 in their latest Shield tablet, but they do not typically release data regarding the number of products sold. The Tegra K1 looks to be the most successful product since the original Tegra 2, but the question of how well they actually sold looms over the entire brand.
So why the history lesson? Well, we have to see where NVIDIA has been to get a good idea of where they are heading next. Today, NVIDIA is introducing the latest Tegra product, and it is going in a slightly different direction than what many had expected.
The reference board with 4 GB of LPDDR4.
Subject: Processors | September 30, 2014 - 10:02 PM | Josh Walrath
Tagged: arm, cortex, Cortex-A, cortex-m, 90 nm, 40 nm, 28 nm, 32 bit
Last week ARM announced the latest member of their Cortex-M series of embedded parts. The new Cortex-M7 design is a 32 bit processor designed to have good performance while achieving excellent power consumption. The M7 is a fully superscalar design with 6 pipeline stages. This product should not be confused with the Cortex-A series of products, as the M series is aimed directly at embedded markets.
This product is not necessarily meant for multi-media rich applications, so it will not find its way into a modern smart phone. Products that it is leveraged at would be products like the latest generation of smart watches. Industrial control applications, automotive computing, low power and low heat applications, and countless IoT (Internet of Things) products can utilize this architecture.
The designs are being offered on a variety of process nodes from 90 nm down to 28 nm. These choices are made by the licensee depending on the specifics of their application. In the most energy efficient state, ARM claims that these products can see multiple years of running non-stop on a small lithium battery.
This obviously is not the most interesting ARM based product that we have seen lately, but it addresses a very important market. What is perhaps most interesting about this release not only is the pretty dramatic increase in per clock performance from the previous generation of part, but also how robust the support is in terms of design tools, software ecosystem, and 3rd party support.
Cortex-M7 can also be utilized in areas where a more complex DSP has traditionally been used. In comparison to some common DSPs, the Cortex-M7 is competitive in terms of specialized workload performance. It also has the advantage of being much more flexible than a DSP in a general computing environment.
ARM just keeps on moving along with products that address many different computing markets. ARM’s high end Cortex-A series of parts powers the majority of smart phones and tablets while the Cortex-M series have sold in the billions addressing the embedded market. The Cortex-M7 is the latest member of that family and will find more than its fair share of products to be integrated into.
Subject: General Tech, Processors, Mobile | February 12, 2014 - 10:48 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: mediatek, arm, cortex, A17
Our Josh Walrath wrote up an editorial about the Cortex-A17 architecture less than two days ago. In it, he reports on ARM's announcement that "the IP" will ship in 2015. On the same calendar date, MediaTek announced their MT6595 SoC, integrating A17 and A7 cores, will be commercially available in 1H 2014 with devices in 2H 2014.
Of course, it is difficult to tell how ahead of schedule this is, depending on what ARM meant by shipping in 2015 and what MediaTek meant by devices based on the MT6595 platform in 2H 2014.
There are two key features about the A17: a 40% power reduction from A15 and its ability to integrate with A7 cores in a big.LITTLE structure. MediaTek goes a little further with "CorePilot", which schedules tasks across all eight cores (despite it being a grouping of two different architectures). This makes some amount of sense because it allows for four strong threads which can be augmented with four weaker threads. Especially for applications like web browsers, it is not uncommon to have a dominant main thread.
The SoC will also support LTE and HSPA+ mobile and 802.11ac wireless connections. It will not integrate the Mali-T720 GPU (DX11/OpenGL ES 3.0), but instead use the Power VR Series6 GPU (DX10/OpenGL ES 3.0 unless it is an unannounced design). MediaTek does not explain why they chose the one licensed GPU over the other.
MediaTek claims the MT6595 platform will be available in the first half of 2014 with devices coming in the second half.
NVIDIA Finally Gets Serious with Tegra
Tegra has had an interesting run of things. The original Tegra 1 was utilized only by Microsoft with Zune. Tegra 2 had a better adoption, but did not produce the design wins to propel NVIDIA to a leadership position in cell phones and tablets. Tegra 3 found a spot in Microsoft’s Surface, but that has turned out to be a far more bitter experience than expected. Tegra 4 so far has been integrated into a handful of products and is being featured in NVIDIA’s upcoming Shield product. It also hit some production snags that made it later to market than expected.
I think the primary issue with the first three generations of products is pretty simple. There was a distinct lack of differentiation from the other ARM based products around. Yes, NVIDIA brought their graphics prowess to the market, but never in a form that distanced itself adequately from the competition. Tegra 2 boasted GeForce based graphics, but we did not find out until later that it was comprised of basically four pixel shaders and four vertex shaders that had more in common with the GeForce 7800/7900 series than it did with any of the modern unified architectures of the time. Tegra 3 boasted a big graphical boost, but it was in the form of doubling the pixel shader units and leaving the vertex units alone.
While NVIDIA had very strong developer relations and a leg up on the competition in terms of software support, it was never enough to propel Tegra beyond a handful of devices. NVIDIA is trying to rectify that with Tegra 4 and the 72 shader units that it contains (still divided between pixel and vertex units). Tegra 4 is not perfect in that it is late to market and the GPU is not OpenGL ES 3.0 compliant. ARM, Imagination Technologies, and Qualcomm are offering new graphics processing units that are not only OpenGL ES 3.0 compliant, but also offer OpenCL 1.1 support. Tegra 4 does not support OpenCL. In fact, it does not support NVIDIA’s in-house CUDA. Ouch.
Jumping into a new market is not an easy thing, and invariably mistakes will be made. NVIDIA worked hard to make a solid foundation with their products, and certainly they had to learn to walk before they could run. Unfortunately, running effectively entails having design wins due to outstanding features, performance, and power consumption. NVIDIA was really only average in all of those areas. NVIDIA is hoping to change that. Their first salvo into offering a product that offers features and support that is a step above the competition is what we are talking about today.
Cortex-A12 fills a gap
Starting off Computex with an interesting announcement, ARM is talking about a new Cortex-A12 core that will attempt to address a performance gap in the SoC ecosystem between the A9 and A15. In the battle to compete with Krait and Intel's Silvermont architecture due in late 2013, ARM definitely needed to address the separation in performance and efficiency of the A9 and A15.
Source: ARM. Top to bottom: Cortex-A15, A12, A9 die size estimate
Targeted at mid-range devices that tend to be more cost (and thus die-size) limited, the Cortex-A12 will ship in late 2014 for product sampling and you should begin seeing hardware for sale in early 2015.
Architecturally, the changes for the upcoming A12 core revolve around a move to fully out of order dual-issue design including the integrated floating point units. The execution units are faster and the memory design has been improved but ARM wasn't ready to talk about specifics with me yet; expect that later in the year.
ARM claims this results in a 40% performance gain for the Cortex-A12 over the Cortex-A9, tested in SPECint. Because product won't even start sampling until late in 2014 we have no way to verify this data yet or to evaluate efficiency claims. That time lag between announcement and release will also give competitors like Intel, AMD and even Qualcomm time to answer back with potential earlier availability.