Arm v9 promises ray tracing for smartphones and a big performance boost

Arm said Tuesday that ray tracing and variable rate shading will migrate from the PC to Arm-powered smartphones and tablets as part of Armv9, the next-generation CPU architecture that the company expects will power the next decade of Arm devices. Chips based upon the v9 architecture will be released in 2021, providing an estimated 30-percent improvement in performance over the next two Arm chip generations and the devices that run them.

Arm’s v9 will also add SVE2, new AI-specific instructions that will probably be used for the AI image processing used on smartphones, such as portrait mode. Arm v9 will also include what Arm is calling Realms, a hardware container of sorts specifically designed to protect virtual machines and secure applications. 

As an intellectual-property licensing company, Arm enjoys a unique position in the computing industry. Phones, tablets, and servers never include chips directly made by Arm; instead, companies like Qualcomm, Samsung, Apple, and others sign licensing agreements wirh Arm, giving them the freedom to manufacture chips designed by Arm, or tweak them to create their own customized designs. Kevin Jou, the chief technology officer of Mediatek—whose chips typically appear in Chromebooks and low-end smartphones—predicted that his company will have an Arm v9 chip by the end of 2021.

Though Arm has been the engine powering smartphones for several years, Apple’s release and conversion to Arm-powered M1 Macs propelled it into the spotlight—and Apple, presumably, will incorporate the v9 architecture at some point. Arm is also making its way through an involved acquisition process by which it hopes to be purchased by Nvidia, a timeline that will overlap with the v9. 

Arm’s v9 architecture will intersect with 2021’s “Matterhorn,” the successor to the Cortex-X1/A78 smartphone CPU Arm introduced in 2020, and “Makalu,” the 2022 core that follows Matterhorn. It’s the latter core that will represent the 30-percent increase, Arm said. Arm also releases a new Mali GPU every year, an Arm spokesman said.

Arm chief executive Simon Segars noted that the 30-percent performance improvement estimate was limited to instructions-per-clock improvements. If a Samsung or Apple tweaks the clock speed or the design, performance could further increase.

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Arm’s Neoverse processors are designed for cloud servers and data centers, while the Cortex A-series chips will end up in smartphones and Arm-powered PCs.

“What’s great about all of this CPU and system performance, is that it applies equally to notebook performance, as it does to mobile performance,” added Peter Greenhalgh, vice-president of technology at Arm, during a presentation to reporters and analysts.

That’s not a trivial claim. Arm lies at the heart of both the most powerful supercomputer in the world—Japan’s Fugaku, with 7,630,848 Arm A64FX cores—as well as Cortex-M powered wearables from Sony, Huawei, and others, and everything in between. Arm v9 spans all of that.

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