While ARM is certainly making a rather big deal over its "big-little" A7/A15 core combo, its partners may not be completely sold on the idea.
While the notion of combining a powerful core with a much smaller, low-power one will offer a certain amount of flexibility, it’s neither a particularly innovative approach, nor is it necessarily enough to threaten rival Intel as much as ARM probably hopes.
ARM licensee Nvidia has actually been using a similar approach for a while now, using a mixture of process technologies on a single chip. ARM’s move certainly gives validation to Nvidia’s methodology –things like unveiling a ‘secret’ 5th core in its Kal-El processor-- but it’s yet to be seen whether the approach will pan out in the long run.
Other ARM licensees like Qualcomm Marvell do their own chip design on top of ARM’s architecture and will likely not adopt big-little, according to sources from amongst ARM's competitors.
So, what’s stopping rival x86 chipmaker Intel from doing something similar and throwing together a high powered core with a lower power Atom core? Nothing, but a source at Intel told us the firm is more interested in lowering transistor power than coming up with a quick-fix alternative.
Not everyone thinks it’s a gimmick, though. Analyst Nathan Brookwood from Insight 64 told EE Times today the idea had “a lot of potential” despite being some two years out. “It’s true that currently it’s all slideware,” he said, lamenting the lack of working demos, but added that the impact when it does come out in real devices could be “very relevant.”
For instance, Little Dog could increase phone or tablet standby time from days to weeks, something especially significant in the third world where power sources aren’t always readily available in every home. “There’s no power in a tent, or hut,” he explained, noting how “miserly power requirements” would be especially important in those cases.
Brookwood also posited that Little Dog may be a bigger problem than Intel might anticipate. “Intel is currently working very hard to try to match ARM in terms of power,” he told us, noting that Intel had hoped to get down to around ARM’s power levels within a year or so, but that Little Dog could increase the British firm’s low-power lead.
Then again, it’s never wise to underestimate Intel, so whether Little Dog’s bark turns out to be worse than its actual bite remains to be seen.