All you need to know about ARM chips

British company ARM is one of the three major non-x86 players, the others being the MIPS and Texas Instruments, both based in the US.

However, ARM is by far the most dominant force in the booming mobile arena with all major semiconductor companies (even Intel) licensing its intellectual property.

The company, which can cite Apple as one of its co-founders, operates a very different business model to its main rival, Intel, which explains its exponential rise. Rather than designing, manufacturing and selling chips (system-on-chip or processors), ARM kicks off the first part of the process allowing its plethora of partners to do the rest, only collecting royalties and license fees as and when they make money.

As a result, ARM generates significantly less revenue than Intel (£0.5bn vs £34bn) but its capital expenditure is minimal (Intel spent more than $10 billion in CapEx in 2011) and its business model more resilient since its stakeholders include the majority of the Global top 20 semiconductor companies.

Hence fighting ARM’s ecosystem would mean taking on the likes of Samsung, LG, Panasonic. Nvidia etc. The emergence of ARM on the wider consumer market is due almost entirely to the booming mobile device market.

Of the hundreds of millions smartphones and tablets that have been sold over the last few years, more than 90 per cent are powered by ARM technology found in so called System-on-Chip products.

To make life easier for you, we’ve compiled a handy list of all the mainstream System-on-Chip families from all the major manufacturers on the market. But first let’s clear up some confusion.

(a) In layman’s terms the differences between the terms SoC, Processor and Chipset which are (unfortunately) often used interchangeably are as follows: SoC is the term used generally by technical media and analysts, and describes the packaging that houses the CPU, the graphics subs-system, memory and more. It is sometimes referred to as an Application Processor. The term processor (or mobile processor) is used increasingly because it is a “consumer-friendly term” while the word chipset refers to additional components on top of the system-on-chip - such as the baseband chip.

(b) ARM doesn’t manufacture processors. It provides licenses that its partners can then use according to their needs. At its simplest, the time it takes to market an SoC can be cut drastically by using off the shelf designs (a ready-to-use but rather inflexible, so-called Hard Macro implementation). A handful of partners have an architecture license that gives them carte-blanche to be more creative. Apple, Nvidia, Cavium, Marvell, TI, Qualcomm, AppliedMicro, Microsoft and Intel all have those precious and expensive laissez-passer.

(c) ARM also designs an important part of the SoC puzzle, the Mali GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), using IP from the purchase of Falanx in June 2006. This means that a company can pick the GPU and the processor from ARM and other parts from other companies, assemble the SoC jigsaw and either choose to innovate (which will extend the time to market and require R&D investments) or stick to a vanilla version and bring parts to market as quickly as possible.

(d) ARM has fielded around 900 licenses with nearly 300 of them for the latest generation of ARM processor, Cortex. Two billion ARM technology-based chips shipped in Q2 2012, earning ARM, on average a mere 4.8 cents (£0.03) per chip.

According to a report published by market research firm Strategy Analytics in August, Qualcomm SoC revenues accounted for nearly $1.1bn or roughly 44 per cent of the entire market making it the biggest player. It is followed by Samsung, Texas Instruments, Broadcom, Mediatek and Marvell.

Unlike the x86 market where there are two main players (Intel and AMD) and one main OS (WIndows), the ARM mobile ecosystem is made up of more than a dozen companies that operate across a number of mobile platforms (iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry OS, Tizen), making apples-to-apples performance comparisons a highly speculative and risky exercise.

Below is the list of all the semiconductor companies that have products aimed at the smartphone and tablet industries.

Companies

Product lines

Found in

Qualcomm

Snapdragon

Sony Xperia, HTC One series, Motorola Razr M, all LTE smartphones on the market

Samsung

Exynos

Most Samsung Galaxy Tablets and smartphones

Apple

A series

Apple iPhone and iPad

ST-Ericsson

Novathor

Entry level Sony Xperia models (U & Sola)

Nvidia

Tegra

Most Android tablets, the Microsoft Surface tablet, HTC One X series, LG Optimus 4x series

TI

OMAP

Archos tablets, some Huawei smartphones, old Motorola phones

Broadcom

BCM series

Some Nokia handsets

All Winner

A series

Mostly in Chinese tablets and smartphones

Marvell

Armada

HP Palm Pre

Rockchip

RK series

Mostly in Chinese tablets and smartphones

Mediatek

MTK

Mostly in Chinese tablets and Smartphones

Huawei/HiSilicon

KV3

Huawei Ascend P1D & Media Pad

Freescale

i.MX

Many Chinese-branded tablets.

Matsushita/Panasonic

Uniphier

Panasonic AV products