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big.LITTLE: coming soon to a smartphone near you

Mar 22, 2013 — by Guest Contributor 956 views

In this guest column, David Laing, a senior analyst at VDC Research, examines the emergence of ARM’s “big.LITTLE” processor architecture, whereby a single chip integrates multiple high-performance CPU cores along with a power-efficient core, enabling it to deliver greater performance at lower power-points than before.


The Next big Thing in Smart Phones is LITTLE
by David Laing


Last week, Samsung unveiled its latest Galaxy S4 smartphone. The first wave of news indicated that it would be powered by Samsung’s new 8-core Exynos 5 octa processor. This is exciting to us because it represents one of the first commercial rollouts of the ARM big.LITTLE technology. Samsung intends to sell the Exynos 5 to other device makers as well. These types of processors although targeted for use in high-end mobile devices, may find M2M and embedded market traction as well because of the many functions that are included and the technology that balances processor speed and power consumption.


The Exynos 5 octa includes four powerful A-15 cores, each one paired with a subsidiary “energy sipping” A-7 core. The ARM technology allows seamless switching from one core to the other, depending upon the application. This heterogeneous approach allows the Exynos 5 to be as much as 70% more efficient than processors utilizing homogeneous cores.

The use of heterogeneous cores is not new, but other versions we have seen often have required some application design finesse to achieve a balance between energy conservation and performance. ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture, on the other hand, allows software developers to concentrate on the use of the four A-15 cores because the instruction sets for the A-15s and the subsidiary A-7s are the same.

Smartphones are not the only mobile products that can benefit from the big.LITTLE technology and processors such as the Exynos 5 octa. If Samsung or another supplier commit to making these military and/or industrial versions of these devices and to making them available for the extended periods of time that these markets require, we might see them make inroads in areas such as telematics M2M and/or micro unmanned platforms. These small-sized platforms have to operate autonomously for as long as possible, so power available for processing is a precious commodity. As with smartphones, loads on processing in mini unmanned and M2M platform applications can vary significantly, depending on the situation. Therefore, a 70% energy efficiency improvement might become the difference between a successful mission and one that is terminated before reaching its goal.

As this blog is posting, there is some information to suggest that the North American release of the Samsung S4 may not use the Exynos, instead using the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600. There are a few possible reasons for this potential processor swap. The first being given is that US carriers are presently more receptive to Qualcomm’s cellular modem technology. We believe that it is also possible that the supply of Exynos 5 octa chips is limited because of wafer fab capacity or yields. Lastly Samsung, like many phone suppliers, keeps each product platform fresh by introducing new derivatives. These incremental upgrades can serve to keep products popular with consumers, thereby maintaining revenue margins for suppliers and cellular providers.

About the author: David Laing is responsible for supporting VDC’s market research and custom consulting initiatives relative to emerging global opportunities, regional growth strategies, and market intelligence for embedded hardware, systems components, technologies, services, and related applications across multiple vertical markets. Previously, he was a senior analyst and program manager in the firm’s Industrial Automation and Controls research practice.


(The contents of this post are copyright © 2013 VDC Research Group Inc., and have been reproduced by LinuxGizmos with permission.)

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