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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  • 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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