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CES 2013: ARM’s state of the nation

HardwareFeatures
by Desire Athow
, 18 Jan 2013Features
CES 2013: ARM’s state of the nation

ARM’s Director Segment Marketing, Client Computing, Jeff Chu started our interview with a bold statement; ARM, he said, is really at the heart of CES this year with most major announcements happening in and around the event involving the British company in a way or another.

From Sony’s Xperia Z to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 4K/UHD SoC powerhouse, many exhibitors were indeed linked to ARM or one companies operating within its bustling ecosystem; not surprising given that 95 per cent of tablets and smartphones use ARM chips.

Chu provided us with another tantalising piece of data: 125 ARM-powered devices are sold every second, that’s almost four billion products in one calendar year shipped globally and once one accounts for the fact that some products contain more than one ARM chip, the actual number balloons to five billions.

For example, the Sphero ball, one of the more interesting gadgets of CES 2013, is basically a remote controlled sphere and is powered by an Cortex-M0 system-on-chip. In addition, Chu revealed that a whopping 80 per cent of digital cameras shipped worldwide come with ARM technology inside.

At least one camera apparently ships with a Cortex-A15 SoC (he didn’t mention which one) to process pictures for panorama and depth control (e.g. digitally blowing the background or foreground). The Samsung Galaxy Camera (EK-GC100) comes with a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 system on chip, the Exynos 4412, clocked at 1.4GHz.

ARM’s lead spokesperson for non-smartphone platforms also touched upon “exotic” form factors like the popular HDMI dongles which costs as little as $40 and can covert a dumb television into a smart one. Chu also mentioned the growing popularity of Android as a dedicated gaming platform with a flurry of form factors (Nvidia Shield, Archos Gamepad, Ouya, Gamestick) that all use ARM designs.

Next on his list were automotive and health, part of what ARM calls the Internet of Things (or as Qualcomm, one of ARM’s closest partners would put it, Internet of Everything). These two sectors are at the very beginning of what promises to be a revolution similar to the one that transformed feature phones into smart phones. Paired with sensors, probes and energy-harvesting technologies, processors can be at the core of solutions that could help monitor someone’s health non-intrusively for a tiny outlay.

Ultimately as Chu puts it, ARM’s ecosystem enables almost anybody to build whatever they want with a very small investment. The barriers of entry are indeed very low and coupled with a modest power consumption, the ARM platform provides with a fertile playground for budding developers and startups. He cited FXI Cotton Candy and Raspberry Pi to illustrate his point.

2013 will be a year of change with more tablets (which tend to be based on ARM) being sold than laptops (which tend to be powered by x86 technology). Chu reckons that ARM is going to reach about 50 per cent of the worldwide mobile computing market by the end of the year which is a lot faster than the company’s own internal estimates, showing the rapid pace of change in global computing.

This year will also see the billionth smartphone being delivered to the market thanks to cheaper models flooding the market and he underlined the importance of two recent system-on-chip parts, the Cortex-A5 and the Cortex-A7, in that process.

The former replace the A8 while the latter will take over the A9. It consumes a third of the power and occupying only 20 per cent of the surface area of this part. This results in a lower cost of manufacturing which translates into cheaper devices with a similar level of performance as a two-year old flagship device.

Concurrently, Chu noted, competition has stepped up, especially in the Far-east with semiconductor companies such as AllWinner, Mediatek, Spreadtrum, Telechip, Nufront, Amlogic, VIA, Infotmic, Rockchips, already starting to optimise their designs for their next generation entry-level products. This translates into shorter cycles between product launches, faster time-to-market, more innovation and thinner margins.

Another aspect of increasing competition is that companies are being bolder. Chu pointed at the Samsung Galaxy Note which is the first successful supersized phone. The failure of the Dell Streak and the first Samsung Galaxy Tab to pick up any steam didn’t discourage Samsung from trying the “phablet” form factor again.

Chu philosophically highlighted the fact that when something doesn’t work for the first time, it doesn’t mean that it won’t work at all. Another great example is the ARM-based Chromebook which offers performance at a great price point and was a failure when it was released as the Smartbook back in 2009. He reckons that we will continue to see a resurgence of form factors where it is the overall user experience that counts.

The tech industry is focusing on delivering an overall, all-encompassing experience rather than just a chip. The stickiness becomes an important factor, something which is tied with the ecosystem, and it will be interesting to see how things pan out in emerging markets where tens of millions of new potential users will have to choose between new platforms and operating systems.

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