When it comes to mobility, ARM-based SoCs dominate. Join us as we take a look at where the flagship processors from Qualcomm, Apple, Nvidia, and Samsung land in the competitive landscape.
ARM is a multinational fabless semiconductor and software design company based in Cambridge, England. It was founded in 1990 through a joint venture between Acorn Computers, Apple, and VLSI Technology. The company's name originally came from “Acorn RISC Machine”. At the time of incorporation in 1990, ARM became Advanced RISC Machines Ltd. Later, when it went public in 1998, the name changed again to ARM Holdings.
Throughout its history, ARM has acquired multiple companies. One of the most notable was 3D graphics firm Falanx, which owned the technology that paved the way for Mali and turned ARM from mainly a CPU IP designer into a provider of graphics processing, too. Of course, Mali GPUs are perhaps best known for their role in Samsung's Exynos chips, but also in many SoC from China. Imagination remains the leader in mobile graphics, but thanks to those Chinese chip companies and the popularity of Samsung’s devices, Mali’s market share is on a steady rise.
ARM is mainly using the ARMv7 instruction set, and it’s deprecating the ARMv6 ISA (even at the lowest end of the market), with ARM11 CPUs based on ARMv6 being replaced by the ARMv7-based Cortex-A5 and -A7. ARM is also about to transition to the brand new 64-bit ISA, ARMv8, which will facilitate products like Cortex-A53 and Cortex-A57, along with the already-shipping Apple A7 and upcoming Denver CPU core from Nvidia.
Unlike Intel, ARM doesn’t build its own chips. It only designs them. Then, companies with access to manufacturing license the intellectual property. ARM's approach allowed its technology to become ubiquitous in the mobile market, and ARM-based processors are now in billions of devices.
ARM currently sells a variety of CPU and GPU IP, from ultra-efficient and low-end CPU cores like Cortex-A5 and -A7, to higher-performance ones like Cortex-A15, as well as the new ARMv8-based Cortex-A53 and -A57. At the same time, it has granted architecture licenses to companies like Qualcomm, Apple, and, more recently, Nvidia, which all have proprietary SoCs based on the ARMv7 or ARMv8 ISA. This model allows the flexibility needed for each contender in the space to differentiate, giving us the diversity in platforms we enjoy today.