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ARM processors have long supported the 16-bit Thumb instruction set, achieving smaller code size at the price of reduced performance. The Thumb-2 extension, introduced with the ARM1156T2-S processor, promises to regain most of this performance loss while retaining the small code size. This is accomplished by mixing 16-bit and 32-bit instructions.

Thumb-2 performance is claimed to reach 98% of the equivalent ARM code while being only 74% of the size. I decided to put this claim to the test with FFmpeg as the target and compiled the same source revision in ARM and Thumb-2 mode using the RVCT 4.0 compiler. For this test I disabled all hand-written assembler optimisations.

The Thumb-2 executable is 85% of the ARM one in size, which although being a substantial reduction falls somewhat short of the promised 74%. I tested the performance by measuring the time to decode a few sample media files on a Beagle board. Several of the samples actually decoded faster with the Thumb-2 build, with one H.264 video clip decoding 4% faster. Only one test, MP3 audio decoding, was significantly slower (15%) compared to ARM code. The speedup is likely due to reduced I-cache pressure. Thumb-2 and ARM instructions are executed identically after the initial decode stage, so no improvement can result from the change of instruction set alone.

In conclusion, the Thumb-2 performance is better than I had expected. Nevertheless, a 15% slowdown in even one case is reason enough to carefully benchmark the effects before deciding on a switch.