Historically, ARM isn't a company we talk about much. The company's processor designs power a huge number of devices worldwide, but its architectures have focused on the embedded, ultra-low power, ultra-low cost markets where high-end performance simply wasn't a requirement. ARM's target market hasn't changed all that much in the past 18 months, but the fact that Intel intends to push future iterations of its Atom architecture into the MID/high-end smartphone market changes the entire competitive landscape. Intel and ARM probably won't go head-to-head architecturally speaking until the former is at the 22nm node, but ARM isn't planning to wait that long. The company launched its new Cortex-A5 this week (codenamed Sparrow), and while it's not targeted at the top-end of the market, it's a highly significant launch. ARMing for Battle
The Cortex-A5 is an important step forward for ARM for several reasons. First, it's significantly more efficient to build than the company's older ARM1176JZ(F)-S, while simultaneously outperforming the ARM926EJ-S. According to the company, the graph assumes all three processors are built on a 90nm process. Power and performance profiles on modern 40nm technology are displayed below, where the Cortex-A5 makes hash of its would-be competitors.
The Sparrow, however, is more than just a faster processor. Architecturally, it's identical to ARM's advanced Cortex-A9 processor, and supports the same features as that part. This flexibility is designed to give product developers and manufacturers access to a perfectly backwards-compatible processor with better thermal and performance characteristics, while simultaneously offering any company that wishes to take advantage of the new architecture's SIMD-like features the chance to do so.
Currently, ARM's ecosystem of products extends from the most basic handsets to the smartphone/smartbook market. Ironically, just as Intel has its eye on moving into ARM's territory, company representatives have told us they believe future iterations of Cortex processors will make appearances in netbooks, notebooks, and even desktops. ARM believes some of its current high-end offerings from the Cortex-A9 MPCore series could already handle the needs of a netbook. It'll be several years until we see Intel and ARM slugging it out for the same market segments, but device design lead times are a factor in why ARM is rolling out its own next-generation low-cost/low-power architecture. At first glance, this might seem to be a slow-motion battle Intel is guaranteed to win, thanks to its size, capital, and available resources. ARM has its own compilers and development tools, but Intel will undoubtedly play towards its greatest strength—x86 compatibility.
One important point to remember when considering an Intel / ARM showdown is that the CPU giant wouldn't be competing directly with ARM so much as it'd be fighting with the dozens (if not hundreds) of businesses and manufacturers who currently use ARM-designed processors and have standardized on the company's development tools. 12 years ago, Intel began winning server designs in what had previously been considered an impregnable market, but the embedded space plays by an entirely different set of rules, with far more manufacturers, a variety of needs, and an entirely different set of criteria in terms of what makes a given processor desirable. Between now and then, Sparrow gives ARM a product it can market as a solution to a wide range of customers. Expect to hear more about the company's processors in the months and years ahead, particularly if we start seeing more ARM chips in smartbooks or even netbooks.