New Products for 2017
PC Perspective was invited to Austin, TX on May 11 and 12 to participate in ARM’s yearly tech day. Also invited were a handful of editors and analysts that cover the PC and mobile markets. Those folks were all pretty smart, so it is confusing as to why they invited me. Perhaps word of my unique talent of screenshoting PDFs into near-unreadable JPGs preceded me? Regardless of the reason, I was treated to two full days of in-depth discussion of the latest generation of CPU and GPU cores, 10nm test chips, and information on new licensing options.
Today ARM is announcing their next CPU core with the introduction of the Cortex-A73. They are also unwrapping the latest Mali-G71 graphics technology. Other technologies such as the CCI-550 interconnect are also revealed. It is a busy and important day for ARM, especially in light of Intel seemingly abandoning the sub-milliwatt mobile market.
ARM previously announced the Cortex-A72 in February, 2015. Since that time it has been seen in most flagship mobile devices in late 2015 and throughout 2016. The market continues to evolve, and as such the workloads and form factors have pushed ARM to continue to develop and improve their CPU technology.
The Sofia Antipolis, France design group is behind the new A73. The previous several core architectures had been developed by the Cambridge group. As such, the new design differs quite dramatically from the previous A72. I was actually somewhat taken aback by the differences in the design philosophy of the two groups and the changes between the A72 and A73, but the generational jumps we have seen in the past make a bit more sense to me.
The marketplace is constantly changing when it comes to workloads and form factors. More and more complex applications are being ported to mobile devices, including hot technologies like AR and VR. Other technologies include 3D/360 degree video, greater than 20 MP cameras, and 4K/8K displays and their video playback formats. Form factors on the other hand have continued to decrease in size, especially in overall height. We have relatively large screens on most premium devices, but the designers have continued to make these phones thinner and thinner throughout the years. This has put a lot of pressure on ARM and their partners to increase performance while keeping TDPs in check, and even reducing them so they more adequately fit in the TDP envelope of these extremely thin devices.
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.