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As you have probably come to realize from our coverage recently, ARM’s processor technology is very much at the heart of Android, powering more than 95 percent of today’s smartphones. The company has enabled the wider platform to grow substantially over the past few years, by licensing its processor intellectual property to other manufacturers to further innovate on.

Since the launch of the first ARMv7-A based smartphone in 2009, the market has already shipped over 1 billion devices, with tablets fast approaching the 500 million mark.

Smartphone shipments up to 2013

Smartphone shipments have exploded this decade, with ARM processors powering 95 percent of them.

It would be unfair not to also mention Qualcomm in this regard, a company which has shipped a huge range of fully integrated mobile SoCs to smartphone manufacturers at both the premium and budget ends of the market. The two companies are set to continue their symbiotic relationship with a new line-up of processor technologies which will be heading our way in the coming months, which will bring a number of important improvements to Android.

64-bit & ARMv8

ARM, and hence Qualcomm, will be making the switch over to the new ARMv8 architecture with the arrival of Android L

The announcement of Google’s upcoming Android L operating system has left us with a number of new software features to look forward to, but there’s plenty set to change in the next batch of smartphone hardware too. ARM, and hence Qualcomm, will be making the switch over to the new ARMv8 architecture with the arrival of Android L, which brings some fundamental changes to the way ARM’s processors are designed and handle data.

Google Play Store code format

A large number of Android apps are only compatible with ARM’s current architecture, making backwards compatibility essential.

One of the most well-known new features of Android L is 64-bit support, however consumers will still need 64-bit compatible hardware before they will see any of the memory and performance benefits. As I’m sure many of you know, the move over to 64-bit will bring support for larger memory capacity and some performance improvements, thanks to a larger address space. However, the ARMv8 architecture also brings several new features, including:

  • Number of general purpose registers increased from 14 to 32
  • Number of SIMD/Floating point registers increased from 16 to 32
  • Simplified instruction set to enhance support of compilers and virtual machines, such as JavaScript
  • Additional cryptographic extensions

To retain compatibility with the existing range of 32-bit Android software, and ARM’s existing ARMv7 architecture, the architecture allows for a seamless switchover between 32 and 64-bit operating modes.

Cortex A53/A57 & big.LITTLE

ARM’s upcoming Cortex-A53 and A57 CPU cores designs are going to be powering the first wave of 64-bit ARMv8 smartphones, so let’s take a brief look at what these new designs include, compared with the popular Cortex-A15, A9, and A7 designs found in today’s smartphones.

ARM’s upcoming Cortex-A53 and A57 CPU cores designs are going to be powering the first wave of 64-bit ARMv8 smartphones

The Cortex-A57 is ARM’s new out-of-order high-performance design, which will succeed the Cortex-A15. The CPU is expected to offer a 20 percent improvement in integer performance, and a 20 to 50 percent increase in NEON and floating point performance over the Cortex-A15, all housed in a more power efficient package. The Cortex-A53, on the other hand, is designed to be a more efficient processor design, whilst still managing to output 40 percent more performance than the Cortex-A7.

The other half of ARM’s plan is to improve power efficiency through its big.LITTLE platform, whereby high power and energy efficient cores can be used side by side to improve battery life. Several manufacturers have already shipped devices with Cortex-A15 and A7 cores in a big.LITTLE configuration, with mixed results in some cases. The idea here is not only to improve energy efficiency through processors cores alone, but by combining and optimizing the use of multiple cores to best suit the task at hand. This is part of ARM’s wider plans regarding heterogeneous processing, but we’ll save that for another discussions.

ARM bigLITTLE work states

The graph above gives an example of at what stage the different cores configurations can be turned on, in order to maximize battery life and optimize performance. We can expect to see more handsets making use of big.LITTLE in the near future, especially as Qualcomm will be adopting the technology in its next-generation mobile processors.

Qualcomm is already prepared for the next generation

We already know a little about what we can expect from Qualcomm’s first high-end ARMv8 based processors, the Snapdragon 808 and 810. For a start, they are going to be based on ARM’s new architecture and processor designs, rather than Qualcomm’s modified Krait cores that we’ve seen in previous generations. Both processors will be making use of Cortex-A57/53 big.LITTLE configurations. Qualcomm also has its low and mid-range ARMv8 processors, the Snapdragon 410 and 610, lined up for release too.

Snapdragon:810808610410
Core CountOcta-coreHexa-coreOcta-coreQuad-core
CPU Cores4x A57 + 4x A532x A57 + 4x A534x 1.7GHz A53 + 4x 1.0GHz A534x 1.4GHz A53
GPUAdreno 430Adreno 418Adreno 405Adreno 306
LTE-A SpeedsCat 6, 300MbpsCat 6, 300MbpsCat 4, 150MbpsCat 4, 150Mbps
CameraUp to 55MPUp to 55MPUp to 21MPUp to 13.5MP
DisplayUp to 4kUp to 2kUp to 1080pUp to 720p

In terms of features, the lower-end Snapdragon 410 processor supports displays up to 720p, 13 megapixel cameras, and up to 150 Mbps download speeds over LTE. The Snapdragon 610 offers additional performance, with support of for full 1080p displays, as well as 21 megapixel image signal processors. In the premium smartphone and tablet tier, the Snapdragon 810 processor provides support for 4K Ultra HD displays, image sensors up to 55 megapixels, complete with support for 4K video recording, and its 4G LTE-Advance modem supports 3x20MHz carrier aggregation with speeds up to 300Mbps.

Qualcomm Heterogeneous Computing

Using the different processor types for the appropriate task not only improves performance, but can also reduce energy consumption.

Qualcomm is also making a couple of other optimizations and improvements to its next batch of SoCs, including Envelope Tracking technology for its radio frequency amplifier, which will save on power usage by 20 percent and reduce thermal emissions by 30 percent.

Qualcomm’s digital signal processor will also continue to help take some of the processing weight off from the main processor, helping to reduce battery consumption. Finally, Qualcomm’s latest Adreno GPU technology aims to improve overall performance whilst improving on energy efficiency over the last generation. We have already seen some of these graphics benefits in the Snapdragon 805.

The next-generation of ARM powered Qualcomm processors are expected to arrive towards the end of the year and should end up in devices in early 2015.

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