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Arm Takes Aim at Client Devices with Total Compute Initiative

Arm’s chip designs have become the dominant architecture in the cell phone space, but the company continues to aim beyond that market with the launch of its Total Compute solutions for consumer client devices. That ambitious rollout includes its latest CPUs and GPUs as well as a new interconnect and software ecosystem designed to tie it all into a single solutions set.

The rollout targets a broad array of client systems, from smartphones and tablets to digital TVs and laptops, an area that is still dominated by Intel and its x86 architecture but one that Arm is pushing to make inroads into.

“We're introducing our first Total Complete solutions for clients,” Paul Williamson, senior vice president and general manager of Arm’s Client Line of Business, said during a recent press briefing. “It uses all of the assets of the platform to build flexible solutions that are tiered all the way from performance down to efficiency in devices. It allows our partners to build the very best-in-class products, so in TVs, you're going to see richer applications that launch and give you that smooth, fast [response] that you've come to live with on the smartphone. You can see laptops that push battery life to new levels.”

Arm doesn’t make chips; rather it designs systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) and licenses those designs to the likes of Qualcomm and Samsung. Over the past decade company officials have looked to extend the reach of the low-power designs into new areas like data center servers and the cloud and are eyeing laptops as another growth area.

Nvidia’s $40 Billion Bid for Arm

The push also comes as Nvidia is trying to buy Arm for $40 billion from Softbank, a deal that would give the GPU and AI chip maker a strong CPU presence. The proposed acquisition is still awaiting regulatory approval. Chip makers like Qualcomm have expressed concern that a Nvidia-owned Arm could impact its independence, which has been key to retaining a broad array of partners, which includes the likes of Apple and MediaTek.

Arm officials see the combination as significant for performance increases, low power consumption, security and offerings that can span from premium to performance to efficiency devices as a way to muscle into most areas of client computing.

Total Compute Solutions Roll Out

The new solutions are based on the company’s Armv9 architecture, which the company announced in March. The Cortex-X2 – aimed at premium laptops and smartphones – is Arm’s most powerful CPU yet, offering a more than 16 percent performance improvement over the previous Cortex-X1 and twice the capabilities with machine learning workloads. It delivers 30 percent more performance over current flagship Android smartphones.

Arm also is offering new “big” (with the Cortex-A710) and “Little” (the Cortex-A510) CPUs, with the former bringing a 30 percent improvement in efficiency and a 10 percent performance increase over the Cortex-A78. The goal is to give smartphone users a better experience when running demanding applications on their devices. The Cortex-A510 is the company’s first high-efficiency Little core in four years, offering a 35 percent performance jump, a 20 percent improvement in efficiency and three times the machine learning capabilities of the Cortex-A55. It’s aimed at smartphones as well as home and wearable devices.

Arm is making all mobile big and Little cores 64-bit only by 2023, putting the focus on performance. The company also announced the new DynamIQ Shared Unit, the DSU-110, an interconnect that can support up to eight Cortex-X2 CPUs as well as security and machine learning features.

Mali Graphics Chips

The latest Mali GPUs are designed to complement the Armv9 CPUs and include the high-performing Mali-G710, which offers a 20 percent performance jump for premium smartphones and Chromebooks for such uses cases as high-end gaming, and a 35 percent jump in machine learning capabilities to enhance images for camera and video modes in devices.

The sub-premium Mali-G610 offers the same features of the Mali-G710 but at a lower price, which will let partners develop and sell premium use cases to more developers and consumers. The Mali-G510 is designed to offer a balance of performance and efficiency and delivers twice the performance, 22 percent energy savings and 100 machine learning uplifts from its predecessor. It’s designed for midrange smartphones, premium smart TVs and set-top boxes.

The Mali-G310 is a highly efficient offering at a smaller price point for entry-level smartphones, augmented reality devices and wearables. Meanwhile, Arm’s new CoreLink CI-700 Coherent Interconnect and NI-700 network-on-a-chip interconnect work with Arm CPUs, GPUs and NPU IP to improve system performance, reduce latency, decrease power consumption and improve security.

Arm’s Laptop Ambitions ‘Aspirational’

Roger Kay, principal analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, noted Arm’s history with smartphones and success with TVs and set-top boxes, but sees an unclear future for Arm-based chips in such systems as client PCs.

"Probably the way to look at the consumer announcement is it's somewhat aspirational in the sense that, beyond smartphones, anything having to do with [Arm-based] laptops is still underrepresented in the overall market,” Kay told InternetNews. “The two big areas that Arm is most interested in is servers, which is more ambitious in some ways but it's the bigger prize there. That's the important background of where they're trying to take things. But also, they want to have a role in clients and I think they see the avenue through Microsoft, and Microsoft has been cooperative, sort of.”

Microsoft has yet to offer native versions of such suites as Office, which is still in emulation mode for Arm.

“Emulation mode is not great,” Kay said. “That's kind of where the border is. When that resolves to where you can get essentially the same experience on this much better device in these other dimensions like battery life and perhaps mobile communication or always-connected, like a phone, all of that bodes well for the future. But there's a kind of initial hurdle, which is they've got to have a baseline level of performance.”

Arm Takes Aim at Laptops

That said, Arm is seeing some gains in laptops. Chromebooks are powered by Arm-based chips. According to Canalys analysts, Chromebook sales in the third quarter 2020 jumped 122 percent year-over-year, to 9.4 million devices and were the best-performing client PC device during those three months. Apple’s new Macbook Air uses the company’s Arm-based M1 processor designed by Apple.

Still, Intel retains its dominant market position, accounting for 80 percent of laptop CPUs in Q1 2021, according to Statista.

Arm continues to make inroads in the server market in both the data center and the cloud. About 90 of the systems on the latest Top500 list of the world’s fastest supercomputers had Intel chips in them, but the system at the top of the list – the Fugaku system in Japan – is powered by Fujitsu’s Arm-based A64FX processors. Arm also announced this week that Oracle Cloud is launching Arm-based cloud instances powered by Ampere Computing’s Altra processors and aimed at high-performance workloads.

Amazon Web Services, the world’s largest cloud provider, already offers Arm-based instances that use AWS’ own Arm-based Graviton processors.

In all, Arm’s chip-making partners in the last quarter 2020 shipped a record 7.3 billion Arm-based chips, a 22 percent year-over-year increase, according to the company. In addition, more than 1 billion Mali GPUs shipped last year.