The A6: What's Next?

Apple has somehow managed to get a lot of the mainstream press to believe it doesn't care about specs and that it competes entirely based on user experience. Simply looking at the facts tell us a different story entirely:

Apple SoCs
  2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Process 90nm 90nm 65nm 45nm 45nm 28/32nm
µArch ARM11 ARM11 Cortex A8 Cortex A8 Cortex A9 ?
CPU Clock 412MHz 412MHz 600MHz 800MHz 800MHz ?

Apple has been at the forefront of the mobile hardware race, particularly if we look at the iOS platform as a whole (iPad + iPhone). Apple was among the first to move from ARM11 to the Cortex A8, and once again with the move to the A9. On the GPU side Apple has been even more aggressive.

Apple hasn't stayed on the same process node for more than two generations, echoing a philosophy maintained by even the high-end PC GPU vendors. It also hasn't shipped the same microprocessor architecture for more than two generations in a row.

Furthermore Apple even seems to be ok with combining a process shrink with a new architecture as we saw with the iPhone 3GS. It's generally thought of as a risky practice to migrate to both a new process technology and a new architecture in the same generation, although if you can pull it off the benefits are wonderful.

The truth of the matter is Apple is very focused on user experience, but it enables that experience by using the fastest hardware available on the market. With that in mind, what comes in 2012 with Apple's sixth-generation SoC?

It's fairly obvious that we'll see a process node shrink. Apple has been on 45nm for two generations now and the entire market will be moving to 28/32nm next year. If Apple sticks with Samsung, it'll be on their 32nm LP process.

The CPU architecture is a bit of a question at this point. We already know that Qualcomm will be shipping its next-generation Krait architecture in devices in the first half of 2012. TI, on the other hand, will deliver an ARM Cortex A15 based competitor by the end of next year. The aggressive move would be for Apple to once again migrate to a new process and architecture and debut a Cortex A15 design at 32nm next year.

Looking purely at historical evidence it would seem likely that we'd get a 32nm dual-Cortex A9 design at higher clocks first. If Apple wants to release an iPad update early next year, that's likely what we'll see. That still doesn't preclude a late 2012 release of a dual-Cortex A15 solution, perhaps for use in the next iPhone.

Note that we haven't talked much about potential GPU options for Apple's next silicon. Given the huge upgrade we saw going into the A5 and likely resolution targets for next-generation tablets, it's likely that we'll see pretty big gains there as well.

GPU Performance Using Unreal Engine 3 Siri
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  • weiran - Wednesday, November 02, 2011 - link

    > If you like a different phone design, you get a Droid RAZR.

    Which is ugly as sin, and isn't really an "upgrade" from an iPhone 4.

    IMO from a design POV the most interesting iPhone competitor right now is the unreleased Nokia Lumia 800, for hardware and software.
    Reply
  • doobydoo - Friday, December 02, 2011 - link

    Hardware wise, the difference between the iPhone 4S CPU/GPU combination and Android competitors, is huge.

    If you want the best performance, I don't see any other way to turn.

    As for the software, I like most users would happily use Android or iOS - they've largely converged anyway.
    Reply
  • name99 - Friday, November 04, 2011 - link

    "If you had a 4 already your just a "moop" if you upgraded to one of these!"

    OK, so most US customers on on a 2yr plan. Upgrading for them is impractical, if for no other reason then for carrier reasons. And then you are COMPLAINING that Apple produced an upgrade that (in your eyes) gives them no reason to upgrade???

    What exactly is your problem? You're like someone who goes to a restaurant and complains "the food sucks --- and the portions are too small".
    Reply
  • dennykins - Tuesday, November 01, 2011 - link

    Hey! I have that "Introduction to Modern Optics" book too! Pretty old, but still relevant Reply
  • name99 - Tuesday, November 01, 2011 - link

    "It is admittedly curious that Apple hasn’t decided to make some other larger change to distinguish the 4S from the other two"

    There was, of course, also precious little visual change between iPhone, iPhone3G and iPhone 3GS. Likewise for plenty of other upgrades across the Apple line in the last ten years. I don't know why Anand thinks it's strange. For YEARS Apple has made the point that you buy an iMac --- and you get the what Apple thinks an iMac should be today. You don't buy an iMac XV371. You don't buy an iMac 7. You don't buy an iMac 20011. You buy an iMac --- which may or may not look like its predecessor, which may or may not have last been updated three, six or
    nine months ago.

    It's obvious that Apple wants to bring that same mindset to phones (and iPads). Screwing with people's expectations of an update in July was simply the first step in breaking the mindset of a particular schedule for upgrades. Of course there are issues that make it more difficult to do this cleanly, for example carrier involvement and the ridiculous subsidized pricing model --- which means that Apple has reason, at least for now, to keep older models around. But there are obvious advantages to Apple in switching to this model, including
    - not being forced to release SW too soon. I think we'd all agree iOS5 was released under pressure, and that iOS 5.1 will be the release 5.0 should have been.
    - Apple's been able to ignore pressure from a stream of constant Android updates for the past two years, but at some point annual upgrades may just be too slow. At that point it would be nice to have the option of minor upgrades (cf the recent PowerBook Pro upgrades), say boosting the CPU from 800 MHz to 1GHz, without it being a big deal --- something to shut up the crowd that looks at specs, while being ignored by the mass audience that does not care about specs and doesn't want Apple talking about them.

    Not that this will stop haters from claiming that "people buy iPhones for fashion"....
    Reply
  • KPOM - Tuesday, November 01, 2011 - link

    Good observation about the upgrades. Yes, it's entirely possible we'll see minor spec bumps as the iPhone has become a staple of Apple's product line. We don't notice all the the upgrades in the Android world (how many people know or even care about the differences between the Galaxy S, Galaxy S II, and Galaxy S II Skyrocket ?), partly because they happen all the time.

    Also, Apple has never been a company to change the design simply for the sake of change. They tweak a design until they "get it right," but then stick with it a while. This year's MacBook Air, for instance, is a big update from last year's (Core i5/i7, backlit keyboard, 4GB RAM standard on most models), but they didn't change the external design. It's still selling extremely well and received good reviews. I think it's the same with the iPhone. The 4S has some significant improvements, from the faster processor, better camera, and better antenna.
    Reply
  • name99 - Tuesday, November 01, 2011 - link

    I'm glad you guys adopted my suggestion to report how snappy a phone feels, based not only on CPU benchmarks but also on the speed of flash, and things like the launch time of apps.

    In the spirit of constant complaint that is the web, can I now ask that you continue to do this for all future phones, not just iOS devices.
    Yes, you have fanboi readers who care only about how wonderful their platform is; but you do also have a number of honest readers who are genuinely interested in things like how the speed of flash (including the speed of SD flash) varies across devices, and how launch times (for comparable apps) vary --- which, of course, depends on both HW and also SW/OS decisions.
    Reply
  • Drasca - Tuesday, November 01, 2011 - link

    There's a small typo that I'm surprised no one else has caught. Perhaps I am the only one that cares enough about this particular subject enough to. On the last page, 4th to last paragraph, we see:

    "we’ll hopefully see the technology mature into something more like what years of science fiction moves have promised us."

    I believe you mean movies here.

    I caught it in particular because I've been discussing amongst my friends how modern technology is the future promise of older science fiction. Oh gosh gee wiz, we have instant mobile communication across the globe, including video! We talk into our portable devices and they think for us. These devices are an extension of ourselves. In a way, we've become like the borg in that we're connected to community at large. Facebook is a form of hive mind group consciousness. Heck, we can track each other near-instantaneously and some folk are vividly aware of each other's locations.

    These are interesting times, and what has only previously been explored as supposition has become reality.

    I still want my flying cars and teleporters. Also, Holodecks and the AI behind it. Plus, the bridge of the starship enterprise D with its big comfy captain's chair and massive screen.
    Reply
  • anishannayya - Wednesday, November 02, 2011 - link

    If you want an iPhone, you really don't have a choice. Either you get the 4S or go find an Android phone. Reply
  • shashank7040 - Wednesday, November 02, 2011 - link

    Asus Eee Pad being the first tablet With Slide out QWERTY........http://goo.gl/B4rJU Reply

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