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ARM leads march to 64-bit tablets, smartphones: analysts

ARM’s new 64-bit ARMv8 architecture could be used in tablets and smartphones in a few years, which could help deliver better performance when running demanding applications such as video, analysts said recently.

ARM introduced its first 64-bit microprocessor architecture, ARMv8, over the weekend, aiming it at devices ranging from sensors to high-end servers.

“The architecture could be used to design processors for smartphones and tablets in a few years,” analysts said.

“Once 64-bit is available, most tablets will move over. The benefit far outweighs the cost,” said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

The first ARMv8 processor designs are expected next year, and prototype consumer products made with them may be released around 2014, ARM said. Applied Micro Circuits demonstrated a 64-bit ARM processor core at the ARM TechCon conference being held in Santa Clara, California.

ARM is a processor design company that licenses its architecture and designs to chip companies including Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments. Most tablets and smartphones today are based on ARM processors, and over the past three years, mostly 32-bit ARM processors have shipped. “New 64-bit processors could run applications faster while allowing vendors to include more memory in devices,” analysts said.

Processors with 64-bit addressing will allow software to address memory spaces larger than 4GB, which is currently the ceiling for 32-bit ARM and x86 processors, analysts said. “With the 64-bit capability, ARM processors will allow devices to play with larger data sets and store more data in memory,” analysts said.

“Tablets and smartphones are adequately served today by 32-bit processors, but devices are increasingly dealing with more data and applications such as video,” McCarron said. “The storage and memory needs will only grow as applications grow more demanding,” McCarron added. By keeping large chunks of data in memory, tablets with 64-bit processors could hypothetically offer faster application response time, according to him.

For example, rather than dumping applications in hibernation out of memory, current tablets keep them running in virtual memory. If the applications could be run in actual memory, their response time could be faster. It is possible to virtualise flash disks on tablets and have a chunk of the system memory mapped to the storage, which is common on all PC operating systems.

“When you’re not using it, it’s still resident, virtualised in the flash,” McCarron said.

There is also an expectation that 64-bit on ARM will matter more with Microsoft’s Windows 8, which could be released by the end of next year, analysts said. Windows 8 will be for both tablets and PCs and will work on chips based on the ARM and x86 instruction sets.

“Upcoming processors based on ARMv8 will make ARM more competitive in the processor market as it tries to compete with Intel,” said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

“Fundamentally, 64-bit capability for ARM is a step to get serious traction with Windows,” Brookwood said.

“The initial ARM processors on tablets running Windows 8 will be 32-bit, but the ARMv8 announcement assures customers that 64-bit processors are on the way,” said McCarron. Windows versions for 64-bit ARM processors may be delivered through version updates or service packs.

“It doesn’t necessarily result in more acceptance, but keeps ARM more competitive,” McCarron said.

“The transition from 32-bit to 64-bit on tablets and smartphones will be quicker than it was on PCs because most software development for ARM takes place on Linux,” McCarron said. The transition from 32-bit to 64-bit on x86 took a long time partly due to backward compatibility issues, with some code stretching back many years.

Linux-based software platforms are much more flexible, and some Android applications will either work instantaneously or can be easily recompiled to work with 64-bit ARM processors, analysts said.

While ARM is the undisputed leader in the smartphone and tablet markets, it is also looking to enter the PC and server markets dominated by x86 processors, analysts added.

“ARM may offer better performance with respect to power consumption, but the 64-bit processors may not immediately match up with Intel’s chips on raw performance,” said Brookwood.

“Intel has spent a lifetime building the fastest chips. ARM is not likely to challenge that soon,” Brookwood said.

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