The A5X SoC

The ridiculousness of the new iPad begins at its heart: the A5X SoC.

The A5X breaks Apple's longstanding tradition of debuting its next smartphone SoC in the iPad first. I say this with such certainty because the A5X is an absolute beast of an SoC. As it's implemented in the new iPad, the A5X under load consumes more power than an entire iPhone 4S.

In many ways in the A5X is a very conservative design, while in others it's absolutely pushing the limits of what had been previously done in a tablet. Similar to the A5 and A4 before it, the A5X is still built on Samsung's 45nm LP process. Speculation about a shift to 32nm or even a move TSMC was rampant this go around. I'll admit I even expected to see a move to 32nm for this chip, but Apple decided that 45nm was the way to go.

Why choose 45nm over smaller, cooler running options that are on the table today? Process maturity could be one reason. Samsung has yet to ship even its own SoC at 32nm, much less one for Apple. It's quite possible that Samsung's 32nm LP simply wasn't ready/mature enough for the sort of volumes Apple needed for an early 2012 iPad launch. The fact that there was no perceivable slip in the launch timeframe of the new iPad (roughly 12 months after its predecessor) does say something about how early 32nm readiness was communicated to Apple. Although speculation is quite rampant about Apple being upset enough with Samsung to want to leave for TSMC, the relationship on the foundry side appears to be good from a product delivery standpoint.

Another option would be that 32nm was ready but Apple simply opted against using it. Companies arrive at different conclusions as to how aggressive they need to be on the process technology side. For example, ATI/AMD was typically more aggressive on adopting new process technologies while NVIDIA preferred to make the transition once all of the kinks were worked out. It could be that Apple is taking a similar approach. Wafer costs generally go up at the start of a new process node, combine that with lower yields and strict design rules and it's not a guarantee that you'd actually save any money from moving to a new process technology—at least not easily or initially. The associated risk of something going wrong might have been one that Apple wasn't willing to accept.

CPU Specification Comparison
CPU Manufacturing Process Cores Transistor Count Die Size
Apple A5X 45nm 2 ? 163mm2
Apple A5 45nm 2 ? 122mm2
Intel Sandy Bridge 4C 32nm 4 995M 216mm2
Intel Sandy Bridge 2C (GT1) 32nm 2 504M 131mm2
Intel Sandy Bridge 2C (GT2) 32nm 2 624M 149mm2
NVIDIA Tegra 3 40nm 4+1 ? ~80mm2
NVIDIA Tegra 2 40nm 2 ? 49mm2

Whatever the reasoning, the outcome is significant: the A5X is approximately 2x the size of NVIDIA's Tegra 3, and even larger than a dual-core Sandy Bridge desktop CPU. Its floorplan is below:


Courtesy: Chipworks

From the perspective of the CPU, not much has changed with the A5X. Apple continues to use a pair of ARM Cortex A9 cores running at up to 1.0GHz, each with MPE/NEON support and a shared 1MB L2 cache. While it's technically possible for Apple to have ramped up CPU clocks in pursuit of higher performance (A9 designs have scaled up to 1.6GHz on 4x-nm processes), Apple has traditionally been very conservative on CPU clock frequency. Higher clocks require higher voltages (especially on the same process node), which result in an exponential increase in power consumption.

ARM Cortex A9 Based SoC Comparison
  Apple A5X Apple A5 TI OMAP 4 NVIDIA Tegra 3
Manufacturing Process 45nm LP 45nm LP 45nm LP 40nm LPG
Clock Speed Up to 1GHz Up to 1GHz Up to 1GHz Up to 1.5GHz
Core Count 2 2 2 4+1
L1 Cache Size 32KB/32KB 32KB/32KB 32KB/32KB 32KB/32KB
L2 Cache Size 1MB 1MB 1MB 1MB
Memory Interface to the CPU Dual Channel LP-DDR2 Dual Channel LP-DDR2 Dual Channel LP-DDR2 Single Channel LP-DDR2
NEON Support Yes Yes Yes Yes

With no change on the CPU side, CPU performance remains identical to the iPad 2. This means everything from web page loading to non-gaming app interactions are no faster than they were last year:

SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark 0.9.1

Rightware BrowserMark

JavaScript performance remains unchanged, as you can see from both the BrowserMark and SunSpider results above. Despite the CPU clock disadvantage compared to the Tegra 3, Apple does have the advantage of an extremely efficient and optimized software stack in iOS. Safari just went through an update in improving its Javascript engine, which is why we see competitive performance here.

Geekbench has been updated with Android support, so we're able to do some cross platform comparisons here. Geekbench is a suite composed of completely synthetic, low-level tests—many of which can execute entirely out of the CPU's L1/L2 caches.

Geekbench 2
  Apple iPad (3rd gen) ASUS TF Prime Apple iPad 2 Motorola Xyboard 10.1
Integer Score 688 1231 684 883
Blowfish ST 13.2 MB/s 23.3 MB/s 13.2 MB/s 17.6 MB/s
Blowfish MT 26.3 MB/s 60.4 MB/s 26.0 MB/s -
Text Compress ST 1.52 MB/s 1.58 MB/s 1.51 MB/s 1.63 MB/s
Text Compress MT 2.85 MB/s 3.30 MB/s 2.83 MB/s 2.93 MB/s
Text Decompress ST 2.08 MB/s 2.00 MB/s 2.09 MB/s 2.11MB/s
Text Decompress MT 3.20 MB/s 3.09 MB/s 3.27 MB/s 2.78 MB/s
Image Compress ST 4.09 Mpixels/s 5.56 Mpixels/s 4.08 Mpixels/s 5.42 Mpixels/s
Image Compress MT 8.12 Mpixels/s 21.4 Mpixels/s 7.98 Mpixels/s 10.5 Mpixels/s
Image Decompress ST 6.70 Mpixels/s 9.37 Mpixels/s 6.67 Mpixels/s 9.18 Mpixels/s
Image Decompress MT 13.2 Mpixels/s 20.3 Mpixels/s 13.0 Mpixels/s 17.9 Mpixels/s
Lua ST 257.2 Knodes/s 417.9 Knodes/s 257.0 Knodes/s 406.9 Knodes/s
Lua MT 512.3 Knodes/s 1500 Knodes/s 505.6 Knodes/s 810.0 Knodes/s
FP Score 920 2223 915 1514
Mandelbrot ST 279.5 MFLOPS 334.8 MFLOPS 279.0 MFLOPS 328.9 MFLOPS
Mandelbrot MT 557.0 MFLOPS 1290 MFLOPS 550.3 MFLOPS 648.0 MFLOPS
Dot Product ST 221.9 MFLOPS 477.5 MFLOPS 221.5 MFLOPS 455.2 MFLOPS
Dot Product MT 438.9 MFLOPS 1850 MFLOPS 439.4 MFLOPS 907.4 MFLOPS
LU Decomposition ST 217.5 MFLOPS 171.4 MFLOPS 214.6 MFLOPS 177.9 MFLOPS
LU Decomposition MT 434.2 MFLOPS 333.9 MFLOPS 437.4 MFLOPS 354.1 MFLOPS
Primality ST 177.3 MFLOPS 175.6 MFLOPS 178.0 MFLOPS 172.9 MFLOPS
Primality MT 321.5 MFLOPS 273.2 MFLOPS 316.9 MFLOPS 220.7 MFLOPS
Sharpen Image ST 1.68 Mpixels/s 3.87 Mpixels/s 1.68 Mpixels/s 3.86 Mpixels/s
Sharpen Image MT 3.35 Mpixels/s 9.85 Mpixels/s 3.32 Mpixels/s 7.52 Mpixels/s
Blur Image ST 666.0 Kpixels/s 1.62 Kpixels/s 664.8 Kpixels/s 1.58 Kpixels/s
Blur Image MT 1.32 Mpixels/s 6.25 Mpixels/s 1.31 Mpixels/s 3.06 Mpixels/s
Memory Score 821 1079 829 1122
Read Sequential ST 312.0 MB/s 249.0 MB/s 347.1 MB/s 364.1 MB/s
Write Sequential ST 988.6 MB/s 1.33 GB/s 989.6 MB/s 1.32 GB/s
Stdlib Allocate ST 1.95 Mallocs/sec 2.25 Mallocs/sec 1.95 Mallocs/sec 2.2 Mallocs/sec
Stdlib Write 2.90 GB/s 1.82 GB/s 2.90 GB/s 1.97 GB/s
Stdlib Copy 554.6 MB/s 1.82 GB/s 564.5 MB/s 1.91 GB/s
Stream Score 331 288 335 318
Stream Copy 456.4 MB/s 386.1 MB/s 466.6 MB/s 504 MB/s
Stream Scale 380.2 MB/s 351.9 MB/s 371.1 MB/s 478.5 MB/s
Stream Add 608.8 MB/s 446.8 MB/s 654.0 MB/s 420.1 MB/s
Stream Triad 457.7 MB/s 463.7 MB/s 437.1 MB/s 402.8 MB/s

Almost entirely across the board NVIDIA delivers better CPU performance, either as a result of having more cores, having higher clocked cores or due to an inherent low-level Android advantage. Prioritizing GPU performance over a CPU upgrade is nothing new for Apple, and in the case of the A5X Apple could really only have one or the other—the new iPad gets hot enough and draws enough power as it is; Apple didn't need an even more power hungry set of CPU cores to make matters worse.

Despite the stagnation on the CPU side, most users would be hard pressed to call the iPad slow. Apple does a great job of prioritizing responsiveness of the UI thread, and all the entire iOS UI is GPU accelerated, resulting in a very smooth overall experience. There's definitely a need for faster CPUs to enable some more interesting applications and usage models. I suspect Apple will fulfill that need with the A6 in the 4th generation iPad next year. That being said, in most applications I don't believe the iPad feels slow today.

I mention most applications because there are some iOS apps that are already pushing the limits of what's possible today.

iPhoto: A Case Study in Why More CPU Performance is Important

In our section on iPhoto we mentioned just how frustratingly slow the app can be when attempting to use many of its editing tools. In profiling the app it becomes abundantly clear why it's slow. Despite iPhoto being largely visual, it's extremely CPU bound. For whatever reason, simply having iPhoto open is enough to eat up an entire CPU core. 

Use virtually any of the editing tools and you'll see 50—95% utilization of the remaining, unused core. The screenshot below is what I saw during use of the saturation brush:

The problem is not only are the two A9s not fast enough to deal with the needs of iPhoto, but anything that needs to get done in the background while you're using iPhoto is going to suffer as well. This is most obvious when you look at how long it takes for UI elements within iPhoto to respond when you're editing. It's very rare that we see an application behave like this on iOS, even Infinity Blade only uses a single core most of the time, but iPhoto is a real exception.

I have to admit, I owe NVIDIA an apology here. While I still believe that quad-cores are mostly unnecessary for current smartphone/tablet workloads, iPhoto is a very tangible example of where Apple could have benefitted from having four CPU cores on A5X. Even an increase in CPU frequency would have helped. In this case, Apple had much bigger fish to fry: figuring out how to drive all 3.1M pixels on the Retina Display.

Battery Life, Charging & Thermals The GPU & Apple Builds a Quad-Channel Memory Controller
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  • Steelbom - Thursday, March 29, 2012 - link

    I'm curious why we didn't see any graphics benchmarks from the UDK like with the iPhone 4S review? Reply
  • Craig234 - Thursday, March 29, 2012 - link

    Wow, this is good to buy... 'if you are in desperate need for a tablet'?

    That's a pretty weak recommendation, I expected a much stronger endorsement based on the review.
    Reply
  • Chaki Shante - Friday, March 30, 2012 - link

    Great, thorough review, thanks Anand et al.

    Given the sheer size of the SoC (like 4x larger then Tegra2 or OMAP4430, and 2x Tegra3), you'd bet Apple has the fastest current SoC, at least GPU-wise.

    This SoC is just huge and Apple's margin is certainly lowered. Is this sustainable on the long run ?

    I wonder if any other silicon manufacturer could make same size devices (not technologically but from a price perspective) and expect to sell them.
    Reply
  • dagamer34 - Friday, March 30, 2012 - link

    No one else needs to crank out so many chips that are the same. Also, other companies will be waiting long enough to use 28nm, so there's little chance they'll be hitting the same size as the A5X on 45nm. Reply
  • Aenean144 - Friday, March 30, 2012 - link

    Since Apple is both the chip designer/licensee and hardware vendor, it saves them the cost of paying a middleman. Ie, Nvidia has to make a profit on a Tegra sale, Apple does not, and can afford a more expensive chip from the fab compared to the business component chain from Asus to Nvidia to GF/TSMC and other IP licensees.

    I bet there is at least 50% margin somewhere in the transaction chain from Asus to Nvidia to GF/TSMC. Apple may also have a sweetheart IP deal from both ARMH and IMGTEC that competitors may not have.
    Reply
  • shompa - Friday, March 30, 2012 - link

    @Aenean144

    Tegra2 cost 25 dollars for OEMs and 15 dollars to manufacture. A5 cost Apple 25 dollars to manufacture. By designing its own SoC Apple got 30% larger SoC at the same price as Android OEMs.

    Tegra3 is huge. That is a problem for Nvidia. It costs at least 50% more to manufacture. Nvidia is rumored to charge 50 dollar for the SoC.

    A5X is 50%+ larger then Tegra3. Depending of yields it cost Apple 35-50 dollar per SoC.

    The integrated model gives Apple cheaper SoCs, but also custom designed for their needs. Apple have a long history of Accelerating stuff in its OS. Back in 2002 it was AltiVec. Encoding a DVD on a 667mhz powerbook took 90 minutes. The fastest X86 AMD 1.5ghz it took 15 hours. (and it was almost impossible to have XP not bluescreen for 15 hours under full load). Since 2002 Apple accelerate OSX with Quarz Extreme. Both these techniques are now used in iOS with SIMD acceleration and GPU acceleration. Its much more elegant then the brute force X86 approach. Integrated makes it possible to use slower, cheaper and more efficient designs.
    Reply
  • shompa - Friday, March 30, 2012 - link

    The A5X SoC is a disaster. Its a desperation SoC that had to be implemented when TSMC 28nm process slipped almost 2 years. That is the reason why Apple did not tape out a 32nm A5X on Samsung. PA Semi had to crank out a new tapeout fast with existing assets. So they took the A5 and added 2 more graphics core.

    The real A6 SoC is probably ready since long back, but TSMC cant deliver enough wafers. The rumored tapeout for A6 was mid 2011. Apple got test wafers from TSMC in june and another batch of test wafers in october. Still at this point Apple believed they would use TSMC for Ipad3.

    ARM is about small, cheap and low power SoCs. That is the future of computing. The A5X is larger then many X86 chips. Technically Intel manufactures many of its CPUs cheaper then Apple manufactures the A5X SoC. That is insane.
    Reply
  • stimudent - Friday, March 30, 2012 - link

    Products reviews are fun to look at, but where there's a bright side, there is always a dark side. Maybe product scoring should also reflect how a manufacturer treats its employees. Reply
  • name99 - Friday, March 30, 2012 - link

    You mean offers them a better wage than they could find in the rest of China, and living conditions substantially superior to anywhere else they could work?
    Yes, by all means let's use that scoring.

    Or perhaps you'd like to continue to live your Mike Daisey dystopia because god-forbid that the world doesn't conform to your expectations?
    Reply
  • Craig234 - Friday, March 30, 2012 - link

    I'm all for including 'how a company treats its employees' and other social issues; but I'd list them separately, not put them in a product rating. Reply

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