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Freescale unveils heterogeneous application processor

23 Jun 2015  | R. Colin Johnson

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The Internet of Things will not exist without application processors. Modern devices such as industrial controllers, handheld tablets and wearables perform many different functions that require heterogeneous application processors, which combine high-speed microprocessor with low-power microcontrollers. Both of which could be turned off and on at will, depending on the current function being performed. This heterogeneous mix for embedded designs is now possible, thanks to Freescale Semiconductor Inc.'s I,MX7 series of application processors.

"Freescale is not the first to come out with heterogeneous processors—TI has done it for their OMAP [Open Multimedia Applications Platform] for mobile applications—but Freescale is the first to do it for embedded applications," Jim McGregor, founder and principal analyst at TIRIAS Research told EE Times in advance of Freescale's i.MX 7 announcement. "Freescale is taking a dual strategy, improving their 32bit line with this announcement, which is smart, because most embedded applications do not need 64bit processing. However, they are also planning to introduce full 64bit processors, probably in their i.MX 8 processors, which may come out later this year."

The i.MX 7 is heterogeneous because it houses either a single or a dual ARM Cortex-A7 high-performance (gigaHertz) microprocessor cores along with a single 288MHz Cortex-M4 microcontroller core (delivering 100µW/MHz and 70µW/MHz respectively). All of the cores can be individually power enabled to perform together or separately as needed. This and several other on-chip domains, all of which can be switched on or off separately, enable the i.MX 7 to burn the absolute minimum amount of power necessary to perform the currently running job.

"The i.MX 7 series we're announcing today combines gigaHertz-class high-performance ARM Cortex-A7 cores with a low-power Cortex-M4 core, which together with our PF3000 power management chip meets the needs of the most innovative Internet of Things [IoT] devices with secure, power efficient industrial, handheld, wearable and new types of IoT innovations inventors haven't even thought of yet," Ron Martino, vice president of Applications Processors and Advanced Technology Adoption for Freescale's MCU group told EE Times.


Freescale's long-rumoured, but finally here, heterogeneous ARM-based i.MX 7 application processor uses four-times less power than its predecessor, the iMX6—as little as 250µA at 1V in its Low Power State Retention mode (LPSR). (Source: Freescale)

The first member of the i.MX 7 series is built with Freescale's 28nm process, which has proven to be reliable, ultra low leakage, low power architecture that Martino claimed represents a 48 per cent power savings versus its competition while in Low Power State Retention (LPSR) mode supporting DDR self-refresh, timer or single-pin wakeup, memory state retention and no need to reboot Linux. Full-power modes can utilise one, two or all three cores simultaneously with the unused cores off. Overall, Marino claimed the i.MX 7 can cut power by over one-third for most applications, thereby extending battery life, compared to other vendor's solutions. Power saving modes include, in order of power—high to low—run, system idle, low power idle, suspend, standby, sleep (LPSR), secure non-volatile storage—SNVS (that shuts down everything except the flash containing the security keys so that tamper protection remains on) and off.

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