Semiconductor Products Insight

Semiconductor Products Insight

Cortex M4: an ARM’s race between Atmel, Freescale, NXP, ST and TI?




While we described the new STM32F4 MCU family from ST last month, the competition has not stood still, and no less than 3 new Cortex-M4 based product lines were announced since then. Not Christmas yet, but let’s see what surprises came up…

Freescale opened up fire on Oct 25 with a “new product platform that integrates Cortex-M4 and Cortex-A5 cores”. Not less. Following the path of NXP who has silicon based on a Cortex M0+M4 concept, Freescale is pushing the idea further by proposing a combination of a DSP focused core (Cortex-M4) together with an application processor, the Cortex A5. The press release falls short though of providing details on either the name of the family or other technical details. More info will come in the first quarter of next year.

It reminds us of the good old times (early 90s) when Texas Instruments released their ARM7+TMS320C54 combination to dominate the GSM world for the years to come until being dislodged when UMTS (3G) appeared.The reason for such an architecture to appear in a cell phone was simple. The primary functions of a cell phone can be split in two major components:

  • The modem performs the connection to and synchronization with the network to transmit and receive data (including voice). It requires a deterministic core that can process data efficiently. The digital signal processor (DSP) remains very efficient while programmable to perform the basic digital signal processing operation at the heart of most algorithms: the multiplicate and accumulate (MAC).
  • The application side, on the contrary, deals with the user interface, initially keyboard and a simple text screen that have now become touch enabled and HD. In this case, the processor deals with highly asynchronous events e.g. keys and multiple layers of software including a high level operating system – e.g. Android, iOS.

Are we seeing more of this type of application in the MCU world?

There is definitely a trend to incorporate more “intelligence” into all our electronic companions. That in turn requires better interfaces with the user, perhaps through a touch screen, for the industrial and automotive industry according to the press release. Curiously, the medical market wasn’t mentioned in the PR.

Atmel “responded” the next day with their new Cortex-M4 family, the SAM4.
The Atmel SAM4S16 is already sampling to early customers while production quantities of the SAM4S devices will be available in early Q2 2012.

Although sporting a more conventional architecture (single core), the SAM4 is said to have flash densities of up to 2MB, a fairly impressive size.

That apparently did not escape Freescale (coincidence?) who issued another press release a week later (Nov 8) to announce their latest Kinetis parts, the Kinetis X. The X will run at 200 MHz and include up to 4MB of flash, both a record if it was in production now.

We remember that NXP was one of the first to have Cortex-M4 silicon, at 150 MHz initially. It subsequently upped all its parts to 180 MHz although they don’t appear to be qualified for full production yet – the datasheets have numerous TBDs in the static and dynamic characteristics.

ST for their part claimed a couple of months ago on Sept 21st to have 168MHz parts in full production. Their datasheets appear to be more complete with the notable exception of the power figures…

Now back to Freescale who plans to provide Kinetis X series alpha samples and development tools to select customers in Q2 2012, with production quantities available in Q1 2013. The Kinetis X targets “automation, point of sale, medical instrumentation, test and measurement and systems that incorporate a human-machine interface (HMI)”.

Looks like an interesting battle is taking place, and we suspect more announcements will soon come.
As usual, if you have comments and questions, please contact us at info (at) keremi (dot) com.
Stay tuned.

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