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ARM develops low gate-count core for low power apps

Posted: 25 Feb 2009     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:processor core  32-bit  low power  microcontroller 

ARM Holdings plc, with the help of its partner and licensee NXP, has designed a new processor core with very low gate-count, targeted for ultra-low-power application microcontrollers. The Cortex-M0 chips (previously codenamed "Swift") are expected to ship before the year ends, and could serve as another (or last) nail in the coffin of the 8-bit microcontroller. It could also enable ARM and its licensees to engage in applications mandated on energy efficiency, such as wireless sensor nodes and e-metering.

With only 12,000 gates, the processor core was designed expressly for low power consumption and could find many applications—although ARM is by no means the first company to offer a low gate-count processor core.

The Cortex-M0, which has not yet been implemented in dedicated silicon, is behind the established Cortex-M3 core both in terms of performance and complexity. But that reduced complexity has the benefit of producing a low-cost and potentially very low-power implementation of the ARM 32-bit processor architecture.

The Cortex-M0 offers 32-bit performance in the footprint of a 16-bit processor, enabling 8-bit MCU developers to "skip" 16-bit devices and move directly to 32-bit, ARM claimed, but with the advantage of remaining compatible with the established Cortex-M3 and with the Cortex-M1, which is ARM's synthesisable microcontroller core for use in FPGAs.

The low gate-count also allows the M0 to be implemented in what is essentially the digitisation of analogue or mixed-signal chips, the company said.

"We will supply M0-based components before the end of 2009," said Geoff Lees, general manager of the microcontroller division at chip company NXP BV. NXP has only been in the market with Cortex-M3 microcontrollers since October 2008, nonetheless Lees clearly has applications in mind for the M0 in the industrial, consumer and medical sectors.

"Low power e-metering, consumer peripherals such as MP3 accessories, power management—there's a new charging standard coming in based on micro-USB. Automotive will be a strong market, eventually. But right now automotive is on its knees," Lees said. "And then anything to do with energy harvesting and renewable energy," he said.

Richard York, director of product marketing for ARM's processor division, said: "For certain markets the Cortex-M3 is too big in terms of performance and in terms of power consumption, for example where we are replacing state machines and dedicated logic."

The Cortex-M0 offers comparable performance to the synthesisable version of the ARM7TDMI and has been benchmarked at 0.9 dhrystone MIPS/MHz and 0.85-microwatt/MHz in the 180ULL process from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. According to ARM documentation the Cortex-M3 processor performs at up to 1.2-DMIPS/MHz with a core of 33,000 gates.

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