ARM Holdings plc (LON:ARM) has long been known for its lightweight intellectual property cores, which have dominated everything from slot machines to smartphones. Power and ARM cores weren’t typically words you heard uttered in the same sentence. But with ARM preparing to invade the laptop space, courtesy of Windows 8 RT (ARM edition), the world is getting its first taste of ARM cores clocked at the speeds usually reserved for PC users.
TSMC today announced an important milestone, achieving a stable core clock of 3.1 gigahertz with a Cortex-A9 dual-core chip. The air-cooled chip, built on TSMC's new 28 nm process, typically operates at lower clock speeds. However, the chip is capable of overclocking to over 3 GHz when performance demands it -- much like rival Intel "Turbo"-equipped chips.
The chips typically cruise at a more battery-friendly 1.5-2.0 GHz. Thus, while partners' proprietary designs based on the rapidly maturing process will likely be targeted primarily at the laptop market, there's also the possibility of seeing such speedy designs in tablets or even smartphones.
Cliff Hou, TSMC Vice President, Research & Development, brags, "At 3.1 GHz this 28HPM dual-core processor implementation is twice as fast as its counterpart at TSMC 40nm under the same operating conditions. This work demonstrates how ARM and TSMC can satisfy high performance market demands. With other implementation options, 28HPM [high performance mobile] is also highly suited for a wide range of markets that prize performance and power efficiency."
ARM Holdings and allies like TSMC need the strong showing. While they have tremendous potential for growth if they can capture some laptop market share from Intel, they're also facing a counterattack on the smartphone front from Intel.
Intel's first generation Medfield chips have finally arrived in a limited selection of smartphones, and battery life has been better than expected. Competition will heat up in 2013 when Intel swaps the 32 nm node Atom Medfield's for a die-shrunk 22 nm version, featuring Intel's power-saving 3D tri-gate transistor design.
In other words ARM, et al. and Intel will be fiercely competing to deliver the most powerful chip computationally with the least electric power consumed. TSMC's latest effort shows that it can crank up core speeds, but does it have the goods power-efficiency wise? That remains to be seen.