20nm ARM processors could be 30% faster, pushing for the 3GHz mark

July 10, 2013
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Cortex A15WaferCredit: Extremetech

Semi-conductor manufacturing firms TSMC and Globalfoundries are both expected to have their 20nm mobile chip foundries up and running by 2014, which means that a new wave of faster and more energy efficient ARM processors should be heading our way sometime next year.

According to TSMC, the shrink down to 20nm could see clock for clock performance improvements of up to 30 percent and a decrease in energy consumption of 25 percent, along with 1.9 times higher transistor density on the chip. That certainly sounds like good news for our poor smartphone batteries, and it also means that we could see some pretty nippy processors in our handsets come next year.

On top of all that, the lower power requirements of these chips will leave plenty of headroom for higher clock speeds. With the current top of the line 28nm based processor, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800, already peaking at around 2.3GHz, a jump up to 3GHz is the next likely target for mobile processors, which would make for some very fast mobile devices.

Ok, but it’s time for a bit of a reality check. We often here about massive performance improvements and record breaking benchmarks, only to be let down by products in real world applications. So what can we expect in reality?

Clock for clock, 20nm processors will be faster and less power hungry than their 28nm counterparts

Firstly, power consumption will definitely come down and performance will be up based on identical 28nm designs, but exact boosts in each department will depend on what the developers choose to do with their designs, and the limits of the chips themselves.

Companies could choose to keep the same clock speeds as current 28nm chips and reap the benefits of lower energy consumption, faster clock for clock speeds, and cooler chips. Alternatively, we could see a jump up in processor speeds, but the extra voltages required will start eating into those energy savings. And besides, not every chip can aim straight for 3Ghz either.

Secondly, the 25 percent energy performance increase is a great start, but don’t expect that to translate directly into 25 percent longer battery life. Remember than screens are massive battery drainers, and there are other components inside smartphones and tablets which won’t be affected by these energy savings, such as network and WiFi antennas.

Looking at what else will be on offer in 2014, Intel will hopefully have its own 14nm Atom chips out by the end of the year, GlobalFoundries has also set its sights on 14nm manufacturing too, and the next generation ARM Cortex A50 series will be heading our way as well.

We’ve already seen some really impressive stuff in the first half of 2013, and I know it’s a bit early, but 2014 is setup to be an even better year for processor technology.

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