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ARM and TSMC buddy up

ARM and TSMC buddy up

ARM's latest deal with TSMC gives it access to high-capacity fabs - should Intel start getting worried?

Low-power processor expert ARM may have finally got the push it needs to dominate the netbook market: a partnership with manufacturer TSMC.

Officially announced by ARM's John Heinlein, the collaboration - which he describes as "the broadest agreement between the two companies to date" - will see TSMC manufacturing Cortex and CoreLink chips, while ARM pledges to optimise its designs for "TSMC's advanced process technology" in order to achieve top yields.

The deal also includes a long-term commitment to use TSMC as a primary partner to develop ARM 'physical IP,' to include custom-designed memory compilers and standard cell libraries designed to help all ARM partners assemble their processors.

The deal is a big one: under the agreement, ARM and TSMC promise to work on both the 28nm high-performance and low-power chip ranges due later this year along with a planned 20nm chip range - which ARM can now start designing specifically for TSMC to produce.

ARM currently holds a near-monopoly in the smartphone sector: almost every portable device uses some variant of its processor technology due to unrivaled performance-per-watt characteristics which keep power usage and heat output to a bare minimum. One area in which the company has traditionally lacked, however, is manufacturing: positioning itself as a pure-IP company, ARM licenses its designs to external manufacturers - unlike rivals Intel and AMD, which by and large produce their own processors.

While this allows ARM more freedom to innovate with its designs, it can increase costs and time to market. This latest partnership with TSMC will see ARM being given unprecedented access to TSMC's not-inconsiderable manufacturing capabilities - something which could give ARM the capacity it needs to take Intel and AMD on in the netbook market and win.

With an increase in the number - and quality - of chips available, a win in the netbook sector could leave ARM well positioned to make an assault on the far larger notebook market - and should Microsoft feel threatened enough by open-source Linux distributions making inroads on ARM-based netbooks to produce an ARM-compatible version of Windows 7, even industry leader Intel could have cause to worry.

Do you believe that ARM's deal with TSMC will spell massive changes to the computing marketplace - and possibly even an end to the reign of x86 - or will it just result in faster, cooler smartphones? Share your thoughts on the deal over in the forums.

10 Comments

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wuyanxu 21st July 2010, 11:47 Quote
physical IP, Intel may have some serious competition on netbook markets. it's a shame ARM isn't a household name.

imagine, everyone knows what processor is in their smartphone that has way better battery life than their laptops. then an ARM based netbook will sell like hot cakes.

i really hope this will create a platform that allows manufacturers to easily create tablets based on this. current limitations is high R&D costs on developing a tablet with competitive performance, an ARM based SoC platform will help vastly.
leveller 21st July 2010, 13:00 Quote
mmm chips!
l3v1ck 21st July 2010, 13:09 Quote
Given TSCM's epic fail with 40mm, isn't this a risky plan?
Kúsař 21st July 2010, 15:28 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by l3v1ck
Given TSCM's epic fail with 40mm, isn't this a risky plan?

I thought it was nVidia's fail. ATi is doing fine with TSMC's 40nm, at least they don't complain...
HourBeforeDawn 21st July 2010, 21:39 Quote
Ya it was mainly nVidia that epically failed during that 40nm process, so ya shouldnt be an issue at all.
dec 22nd July 2010, 00:14 Quote
cool go ARM!. By 2030 there may be a 3 dog race for desktop CPU's....well 2 architecture race. Anyone think x86 would disappear if ARM got into the desktop segment?
Sloth 22nd July 2010, 00:27 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by dec
cool go ARM!. By 2030 there may be a 3 dog race for desktop CPU's....well 2 architecture race. Anyone think x86 would disappear if ARM got into the desktop segment?
Seeing as there's not been an ARM processor powerful enough to rival even budget x86 processors in the desktop market (to my knowledge) then no. Running all my favorite games on a smartphone processor does not sound appealling.
wuyanxu 22nd July 2010, 12:20 Quote
Sloth is right, the RISC architecture is not aimed at pure performance (or backwards compatibility for that matter) it's aimed at power efficiency.

ARM architecture would only really take over when/if Intel/AMD hits a power wall and stops innovating.
Gareth Halfacree 22nd July 2010, 12:29 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by wuyanxu
Sloth is right, the RISC architecture is not aimed at pure performance (or backwards compatibility for that matter) it's aimed at power efficiency.
Except, of course, that modern x86 hardware is RISC at heart anyway...

During the VCF, Sophie Wilson - original creator of the ARM architecture - fielded a question about relative performance with the statement that ARM and x86 are already at a "performance parity," which is to say that both architectures perform equally well.

The reason ARM *processors* (distinct from architecture) are slower is because, as you say, they are built with a low power consumption in mind. If anyone were to build a 3GHz ARM chip with a far higher power draw than usual and a massive cooling fan, Wilson argues that it would perform just as well - if not better - than a 3GHz x86 chip from Intel or AMD.

Such a processor doesn't exist *yet* - but could well appear in the future if ARM start making inroads in less-portable (i.e. smartbook, netbook, or even notebook) markets.

Granted, Sophie Wilson is hardly unbiased, but if anyone knows what they're talking about on this subject it's her.
wuyanxu 22nd July 2010, 12:45 Quote
well spotted, i meant processors.

IF the architecture has been designed to run at 3GHz, and IF the software has been re-written to be optimised, ARM processors running at same speed would win a x86.

problem of course is backwards compatibility and software optimisation. x86 is indeed basically a RISC core wrapped in a more complex decoder. the decoder takes care of those problem and it's what made x86 so successful.
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