For a preview of the top-shelf Android phones that’ll arrive in 2020, check out the Arm Cortex-A77 processor design — and the 20% speed boost it should bring to smartphone chips.
UK-based Arm designs chips and licenses those designs to companies like Samsung, Qualcomm and MediaTek. Some companies, like Apple, license only the chip instruction set, the interface that software uses to command a chip. Others license complete CPU designs, like the A77. Licensees combine those chip brains with other components, like Arm’s new Mali-G77 graphics processing unit, into a single package called a system on a chip.
The A77’s performance boost over today’s chips, known as A76s, requires more power out of your phone’s battery, says Rene Haas, president of Arm’s intellectual property licensing group. Arm announced the new chip technology at the Computex show in Taiwan, along with plans by MediaTek to use it in chips coming early in 2020.
Better performance is important for getting more out of our phones. We’re holding onto our phones longer, but when we do upgrade, speed lets us tap into new features, like useful speech-to-text transcription, video editing and gender-swapping Snapchat filters.
What remains to be seen is whether Arm’s A77 will help Android phones close the performance gap with Apple’s iPhones. Apple’s iPhone XS scores 4,797 on the Geekbench speed test using Apple’s own processors, compared with 3,414 for the Samsung Galaxy S10 using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 chip — the phone version Samsung sells in the US.
Different chipmakers can choose to boost performance with features such as better graphics, dedicated circuitry for AI and larger amounts of cache memory for high-speed data access. All that makes chips bigger and more expensive, though, so chipmakers make different decisions about the best choices for their products.
Arm also says its G77 graphics processing unit design is 40 percent faster than the current G76. That’s chiefly useful for gaming, where players can get fancier imagery or smoother motion, but also for higher resolution displays that have to churn through more pixel data.
“The game will never stutter,” Haas said. And the extra performance is also good for the larger displays of folding phones, like Samsung’s Galaxy Fold.
Though the A77 brain doesn’t come with dedicated circuitry for AI work the way higher-end processors from Apple and some others do, Arm offers an AI option through its Project Trillium designs. And even without that, lots of software uses the plain old CPU for AI. Arm’s optimization work gives a significant boost to AI software frameworks like Google TensorFlow, Haas said.
Lots of mobile chipmakers employ other AI chip designs, but Haas thinks they’ll come into the Arm fold. “Unless it’s quite a bit higher performance, you have to ask yourself why you should build this when you can get it from Arm,” he said.