What's in your smart device?

October 1, 2010 OpenSystems Media

For mobile devices, sub 1 W processors are the choice. For digital home devices, there are choices at 3 W and up. For tablets, something in between might be emerging.

Try to remember the last September when there were this many important introductions and sneak peeks of processors coming soon for smart devices.

ARM, already found in most smartphones, is pushing its product line even harder with a preview of the ARM Cortex-A15 (“Eagle”). We have a bit more on this four-core, 2.5 GHz design in our expanded look here. This adds a very formidable part at the top end of the ARM family upon arrival – it’s available for licensing now, targeting parts in 32 nm and 28 nm in about 18 months.

What’s interesting is that the lower-end, lower power consumption versions of the Cortex-A15 work for smartphones. They’ll probably clock around 1 GHz, and though it’s early to say how much power that will actually take, it’ll likely be right around 1 W. When the Cortex-A15 clock speed is cranked up to around 2.5 GHz, its performance looks to fill that tablet space and become very competitive with mid-range processors for increasingly complex digital home platforms.

MIPS, claiming over half of today’s digital home market (TVs, set-top boxes, Blu-ray players, and similar devices), continues expanding its line with the announcement of the MIPS32 1074K (Figure 1). This part features one to four cores running at 1.2 GHz in 40 nm currently, with active power around 900 mW. The 1074K targets fewer threads with one dominant workload, while the 1004K family targets many threads and distributed workloads.

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Figure 1: The new MIPS32 1074K features one to four cores running at 1.2 GHz in 40 nm.

The consistent theme in the MIPS approach is compact, fully synthesizable cores with low power consumption. With a concise core lineup, this focus on process and footprint serves the sub 1 W space well and cost-effectively, and MIPS is not pushing much higher than that, from what we can see. Efficient digital home and tablet devices are the targets.

Intel is sticking to the finished embedded part approach instead of licensable System-on-Chip (SoC) cores. The company made a big splash at Intel Developer Forum San Francisco with the Intel Atom E600 processor (“Tunnel Creek”), a preview of the CE4200 (“Groveland”) for larger digital home platforms, and a first look at what could be a very unique integrated part with an E600 and an Altera FPGA in a single package (“Stellarton”).

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ECD in 2D: Check out a quick preview of the Intel Atom E600 processor. Use your smartphone, scan this code, watch a video: http://bit.ly/deuUv4.

Going everywhere in smart devices with this lineup is tough, however. The smallest version of the E600 checks in with 2.7 W Thermal Design Power (TDP) at 600 MHz, and it still needs I/O added. The CE 3100 multimedia processor, predecessor to the CE4200, is 9.82 W at 800 MHz, and it’s not likely the CE4200 will approach that 3 W barrier. While digital home platforms can support this power range, tablets are still going to look for lower power points.

Power Architecture is found en masse in gaming devices and some digital home platforms, but there wasn’t a new core announcement as of press time. With a broad range of cores, Power Architecture targets the higher end, competing with Intel’s high-performance multicore CPUs.

Increasingly, smart mobile devices are going to look for multicore parts close to the 1 W point, tablets will seek parts in the 2 W range, and digital home devices will take parts 3 W and up. This puts ARM in position to span the whole range, while MIPS works the lower end and Intel continues to press top down. There’s room for all three approaches. Let me know what you see emerging for smart device processors.

Don Dingee (Editorial Director)
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