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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  • mr_ripley - Friday, March 30, 2012 - link

    It's a shame some people argue that against the workers when over a hundred of them have committed suicide over the working conditions. How can you still say that they are being offers a better deal here??

    On the other hand, it is also unfair that Apple is being singled out here. The world of Chinese manufacturing is a dirty one and all major corporations have a part in it. I'd trust Apple over most other companies to make a difference in that regard, and I'm happy to see something is being done in that regard. Ever heard McDonalds CEO touring the slaughterhouse of the meat packing companies??
    Reply
  • name99 - Friday, March 30, 2012 - link

    Reporting suicides as a number not as a rate shows you to be either a fool or a deliberate liar. How many people, over how many years, comprise the pool from which this suicide number is drawn? Everything I have read says that the actual suicide rate is not only lower than the average rate for China, it is lower than the average rate for the US. Reply
  • mr_ripley - Friday, March 30, 2012 - link

    In 2010, 18 workers attempted sucide, 14 succeeded. To me even one in a whole year is not acceptable. If you think that is ok I hope that statistic turns out to be you!! Reply
  • name99 - Saturday, March 31, 2012 - link

    The argument was NOT that suicide is a tragedy, it was a claim that FoxConn employees specifically tied to Apple production have such lousy lives that they commit suicide in higher numbers that other people around the world.

    You have done NOTHING to prove this claim; all you have done is bring up a very different issue.
    Reply
  • mr_ripley - Saturday, March 31, 2012 - link

    There is no disputing the fact that these deths are related to working conditions. I'm pretty sure this has been well established and documented. However, I did say in my previous post that Apple is unfairly singled out. It could have been any other company.

    Comparison between suicide rates is irrelevant. Higher sucide rates elsewhere does not justify this problem. Again the fact remains that many people have died and it is directly related to the working conditions.

    Apple happens to be in a position to directly influence their lives and make it better, after all they profit in billions from the work these people do. Corporations typically place little value over human life and living conditions (IBM sold equipment to the Nazis to track the Jews in concentration camps). Somehow, I feel Apple is different.
    Reply
  • doobydoo - Sunday, April 01, 2012 - link

    Dude, sorry but you're talking no sense at all.

    First of all, pretty much any product you want to buy, electronics wise, uses parts from China where conditions are far worse on average, than Apples factories. So if you actually factored working conditions into the product review, it would look favourable for Apple.

    Secondly, your argument that comparison between suicide rates is irrelevant, is absurd. Higher suicide rates where legislation is such that no jobs suffer such terrible conditions that suicide is the only option, such as is the case here, prove that even if working conditions are refined, you still get some depressed people. Your argument, therefore, is with the people who committed suicide. You say it is 'directly related to the working conditions' but where have you evidenced this, at all? You simply haven't. The fact that the suicide rates at Apple factories are lower than some American ones further backs up my point on this.

    Every company is in a position to change lives and make them better. You too, are in a position to do this. But guess what. You, just like companies, can do WHATEVER YOU LIKE with your OWN MONEY and have NO OBLIGATION WHATSOEVER to solve the worlds problems. Apple already has amongst the best conditions of factories in China. The amount of profit they make is absolutely irrelevant, if you say Apple should be putting money into this then a lot more manufacturers should also put a lot more money into this. It's very easy to decide what other people 'should' do with their money now, isn't it?

    Corporations don't have to adhere to moral values - they are not people. They are there solely to make money. Nothing else. Don't confuse them with people. And I hope you donate every single spare penny to charity and spend every spare second of your time working to build homes in the 3rd world. Oh wait, you're on here crying that other people should do it instead.

    Get a hold of yourself you illogical fool.
    Reply
  • mr_ripley - Sunday, April 01, 2012 - link

    Like I have said before it is a shame some people argue with great zeal against others who are suffering and devalue human life. Fortunately, Tim Cook is not one of them.

    If scores of people killing themselves citing poor working conditions is not enough proof what is? If your claim that there are work environments in America that have higher suicide rates because of working conditions is true that needs to be investigated as well and rectified.

    You give charity to people who are in need and cannot earn for themselves. If you think giving someone fair amount of compensation for hard work is charity you are delusional.

    If working in those factories is such a pleasent experience I suggest you try it out for yourself. Maybe the experience might broaden your perspective.

    Although, I don't see the point I will attempt to educate you. Legally, a corporation is considered as a person, that is right just like a live human being. Regardless of that corporations are run by people and actions of a corporation reflect upon the morality of the people running them.

    I will stop here as there is no point in continuing but you can respond with more insults and accusations of what I do or have done which frankly is no concern of yours.
    Reply
  • PeteH - Monday, April 02, 2012 - link

    I've not seen a single report of people killing themselves and citing "poor working conditions" as the reason. Can you provide a link?

    There have been reports of people killed because of unsafe working conditions, but that's a different issue. Maybe you're confusing the two.
    Reply
  • mr_ripley - Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - link

    Here's a Wikipedia link: you can read some of the circumstances and judge for yourself.

    They may not have said it in so many words but it is clear they were unhappy with ther work environment.

    Imagine your boss coming and beating you up because you lost an iPhone prototype!!!
    Reply
  • mr_ripley - Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - link

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foxconn_suicides Reply

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