The A5 Architecture & CPU Performance

The original iPhone debuted with a single 412MHz ARM11 core built on a 90nm process. The 3G improved network performance in 2008 but left the SoC untouched. It wasn't until the iPhone 3GS in 2009 that the SoC got a major performance and power update. Apple moved to a 65nm process node, a brand new ARM Cortex A8 based SoC and an upgraded GPU. The A4 released in 2010 once again gave us a process shrink but kept the architecture unchanged.


Apple's A5 SoC

Apple's A5, first introduced with the iPad 2, keeps process technology the same while introducing a brand new CPU and GPU. The A5 integrates two ARM Cortex A9 cores onto a single die. The improvement over the A4 is tremendous. At the single core level, Apple shortened the integer pipeline without reducing clock speed. With a shorter pipeline the A5 gets more done per clock, and without decreasing clock speed the A5 inherently achieves better performance at the same clock. The move to the Cortex A9 also enables out-of-order instruction execution, further improving architectural efficiency. I've heard there's a 20% increase in performance per clock vs. the Cortex A8, but combine that with the fact that you get two A9s vs a single A8 in last year's design and you get a pretty big performance increase.

There are several situations where the A5's two cores deliver a tangible performance benefit over the A4's single core. Like Android, iOS appears to be pretty well threaded. Individual apps and tasks can take advantage of the second core without a recompile or version update. The most obvious example is web browsing.

Mobile Safari is well threaded. Javascript rendering can be parallelized as well as parts of the HTML parsing/rendering process. All of the major Javascript performance benchmarks show a 60 - 70% increase in performance over the A4, which is partially due to the availability of the second core:

SunSpider Javascript Benchmark 0.9.1 - Stock Browser

Rightware BrowserMark

This translates directly into faster page load times. As you can see in the video below, the iPhone 4S (left) loads the AnandTech front page over WiFi in about 5 seconds compared to 9 seconds on the iPhone 4 (right). That's really the best case scenario, the improvement in the next page load time was only about a second (7s vs 8s).

Typical improvements in load time fall in the 10 - 70% range, contributing significantly to the phone feeling snappier than its predecessor. To quantify the improvement I ran through our standard web page loading suite, a test that hits AnandTech, CNN, NYTimes, Engadget, Amazon, Digg and Reddit hosted locally on our lab's network. The average page load time over WiFi for all of the pages is below:

AnandTech Web Page Loading Performance Suite

While web page rendering is a natural fit for multiple cores, I was surprised by how poorly threaded some apps ended up being. For example, although I did see performance improvements in exporting edited videos from the iOS version of iMovie, the gains weren't always evident. A quick profile of the app revealed that much of the export process is still single threaded. Just as we've seen on the desktop, there will be some added work necessary to get all apps to utilize multiple cores on iOS.

It's not always performance within an app that saw improvement with the A5: application install and launch times are also much quicker on the 4S. The time to launch Epic's iOS Citadel demo went from 32 seconds on the iPhone 4 to 22 seconds on the 4S. While the iPhone 4 may feel fast enough for many users, the 4S is noticeably faster.

Photos App - Auto Enhance Image

Much of the faster feel comes from by shaving off of seconds here or there. For example, I noticed apps like Messages pop up just slightly quicker on the 4S and you'll see your listing of messages a hair faster than you would on the 4. In the video above you get a brief idea of the sort of subtle improvements I'm talking about. YouTube launches a fraction of a second quicker on the 4S vs the 4.

These subtle decreases in response time are simply icing on the cake. The move from a 4 to a 4S is one of those upgrades that you'll notice right off the bat but will really appreciate if you go back to an iPhone 4 and try to use it. If you do a lot of web browsing on your phone, you'll appreciate the 4S.

I wasn't entirely sure whether or not I could attribute all of these performance improvements to the faster CPU. It's possible that some of the tests I mentioned are IO bound and Apple could have used faster NAND in the 4S. To find out I rounded up a bunch of iPhone 4Ses at all available capacities and measured sequential write speed:

NAND Performance

Apple uses multiple sources for NAND so it's possible that you'll see these numbers move around a bit depending on your particular phone. It looks like the iPhone 4S' NAND is no faster than what Apple shipped last year - at least in sequential write speed. The target appears to be 20MB/s and Apple does its best to stay around there. My iPhone 4 is actually pretty quick at 22MB/s but the advantage isn't significant enough to make a huge deal about. I don't have a good way of measuring random IO performance yet but application launch time is largely governed by sequential IO so I don't expect we're seeing gains from anything outside of the CPU and memory bandwidth in the earlier tests.

Faster Throughput on WCDMA The Memory Interface
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  • medi01 - Thursday, November 03, 2011 - link

    Find contrast of BEAUTIFUL Galaxy phones on the charts pretty please... Reply
  • doobydoo - Friday, December 02, 2011 - link

    Yeah the 'beautiful' screens...

    The Galaxy screen is what, 480 x 800? on a 4.27 inch screen?

    The iPhone 4s is 640 x 960 - on a 3.5 inch screen.

    A much higher resolution.
    Reply
  • Brian Klug - Sunday, November 06, 2011 - link

    "1) Ridiculous BS sentences about "improved vibration" that obviously come straight out of Apple's marketing mouth"

    I'm sorry you feel that way, but the vibration unit is indeed different, and lends a completely different feel from every other device out there which just uses a spinning counterweight.

    I'd encourage you to try it on your own.

    -Brian
    Reply
  • Samus - Tuesday, November 01, 2011 - link

    Great review, thanks Anand! If I weren't so stubborn I'd get an iPhone (because they really are great phones) but I just can't do the Apple thing. I like the openness, tweakability and choices provided by Android phones, but for the general population, the iPhone is pretty much the best option for the high-end market. Reply
  • zanon - Monday, October 31, 2011 - link

    Hoorah, the definitive review is here at last! Thanks as always for your hard work on this.

    And yeah, the 543MP2 is a sick monster of a chip. Imagination Technologies really hit a home run with this one, simply amazing performance. Not just Apple either, I believe the Vita is using the MP4 version of this chip. With the show they've put on this time, I'm very much looking forward to seeing what they do for the Series 6 Rogue ones that I think are still due next year. Or for that matter even if they do an update/shrink of these ones.

    Great to see so much competition between graphics in the mobile world, practically every major player has a foot in the water at least. I think this stuff will start to matter more and more too for items beyond games. Applications like further advances in augmented reality seem like they could use plenty of power, and are uniquely suited to mobile platforms. Things will get really nuts when retinal projection displays or some equivalent finally start filtering down into the main market.
    Reply
  • Lucian Armasu - Tuesday, November 01, 2011 - link

    It's not really about the architecture, though, but about the size of the GPU = more performance. It's 2x the size and has 1.5-2x the performance of Exynos' GPU. Not that surprising.

    I'm not entirely sure why they had to use such a powerful GPU, though. Is it to make it easier to support higher resolutions? Because it can't be about the games. Why would it get 7x the performance of the previous iPhone 4 GPU, when it can only use 2x of that anyway?
    Reply
  • loganin - Tuesday, November 01, 2011 - link

    That's a pretty weak and factually wrong claim to discredit Apple's product, not that it's surprising coming from you.

    "Exynos SoC Same Size As Apple A5 In iPad 2"

    http://www.itproportal.com/2011/06/07/exynos-soc-s...
    Reply
  • zanon - Tuesday, November 01, 2011 - link

    loganin already addressed your claptrap regarding size, so we'll just ignore that. A few other bits stand out, however. The first is that, fundamentally, even if you were right so what? You don't win any points for improving in one way vs another, what matters is the result at the end. Regardless of the method PowerVR used the fact that the 543MP2 utterly demolishes the competition, and that it's a beast, would not change.

    Second, you failed to mention in your "1.5x-2x" the performance bit the fact that it's also clocked *50% slower* then the Exynos. Again, even pretending you were correct, your size difference *still* wouldn't explain the kind of gap we're seeing. Unlike size, which is not perfectly correlated with performance, clock rate pretty directly is. If the 4S's A5 was running at 1.2 GHz, it would be more like 2.8x the performance of the Exynos at the high end.

    >>Because it can't be about the games. Why would it get 7x the performance of the previous iPhone 4 GPU, when it can only use 2x of that anyway?
    Also, this bit is just WTF. You might have noticed that PC GPUs continue to increase in power? Despite resolutions not continuing to increase? WTF do you mean "you can only use 2x of that"?? At least until the level of complete photorealism with full real time physics modeling of everything is achieved there's always room to spend more power just making the scene look better. Duh.
    Reply
  • metafor - Tuesday, November 01, 2011 - link

    Erm, GPU clocks are independent of what the CPU is clocked at. I.e. just because the A5's CPU is clocked at 800MHz doesn't mean the GPU is.

    Apple never really releases what the internal clocks of their various components are running at.
    Reply
  • Lucian Armasu - Wednesday, November 02, 2011 - link

    Do you even know what 50% slower means? It means half the clock speed. It's not 50% slower. It's 30% slower than Exynos CPU.. It's the Exynos CPU that is "50% faster" than the A5 one.

    But that's not even what we were talking about. I was talking about the GPU, not the CPU. The GPU has a difference frequency.
    Reply

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