Freescale joins ARM microcontroller and CPU

The future of ARM chips is clearer than ever: asymmetric multiprocessing, where low-power parts are combined with more powerful processors to create a platform providing - theoretically - the best of both worlds.

ARM licensee Freescale is the latest company to jump on the asymmetric multiprocessing bandwagon, announcing a new system-on-chip design which combines a low-power ARM Cortex-M4 microcontroller with a Cortex-A5 processor.

The result, Freescale claims, is a device suitable for real-time control applications while providing enough power for graphics-rich application processing.

"With this platform, Freescale is dramatically simplifying the development challenge of adding applications processing to a system designed for real-time control," claimed Reza Kazerounian, the man in control of Freescale's Microcontroller Solutions Group.

"We're the first to provide extensive MCU and apps processing capabilities in an integrated hardware-software based solution, setting a new standard for the design of systems that need rich apps in real time," Kazerounian added.

Freescale's creation isn't the first asymmetric design from ARM's various licensees: back in September 2010 Marvell announced the Armada 628, a chip which combined two high-performance 1.5GHz processing cores with a 624MHz low-power part for running background tasks.

It's a design which has proven a winner, with Nvidia taking the concept and running with it in its five-core 'Kal-El' part - along with a patented variant on the asymmetric multiprocessing concept the company dubs 'variable SMP' or vSMP - and has even become an official IP from British chip giant ARM itself in the form of its ARM Cortex-A7 and Cortex-A15 'big.LITTLE' concept.

Unlike its competitors' parts, Freescale isn't aiming for smartphones and tablets. Instead, the use of a microcontroller and a processor - rather than Marvell, Nvidia and ARM's combination of two general-purpose processing units running at different speeds - makes it well-suited to embedded designs in automotive and industrial applications.

"Industrial applications like factory automation, medical devices and appliances are starting to incorporate more connectivity and sophisticated GUIs to give end users a simpler, safer and more consumer-like experience. Adding these features to a real-time system has traditionally been done by adding an applications processor on top of a real-time controller, which can be a real challenge for industrial system developers," explains Semico Research's Tony Massimini.

"Freescale is taking a unique approach with a new product platform that merges an apps processor and real-time controller into one device to reduce complexity and cost, combined with a 'software before silicon' strategy for earlier software development."

Freescale is aiming the new part as the foundation of a next-generation family of embedded microprocessors, which will sit alongside the company's Kinetis MCUs and i.MX application processors to provide a third route to the creation of a combined device.

The company has confirmed plans to release a software development platform for the product later this quarter, with the first silicon due to arrive early 2012. The first automotive-centric versions, Freescale adds, will appear in Q2 2012.