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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  • phero - Friday, January 18, 2013 - link

    Thank you very much for this extensive review, especially the part about power consumption. It has given me all the information I needed for a well informed decision on which phone to buy. Reply

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