The SoC: 32nm A5R2?

So much of any new iPad/iPhone release is tied to the SoC. Apple remains one of the only handset designers that aggressively specs its own SoC rather than picking up an off the shelf part. As of late, Apple has used its control over its own SoC architecture to better match its chip architectures to the needs of its high resolution displays. Apple continues to produce its custom-designed SoCs at Samsung, although it's likely that Apple will consider other foundries at the 20nm node.

 
Rumored upcoming PCB, annotations ours

Most early looks at the next iPhone's internals show no silkscreened part numbers on the SoC. We've already seen blurry photos of the suspected upcoming PCB leak, though they're far too low quality to make out any chip markings. Given Apple's history, it's likely we'll see a 32nm LP (HK+MG) variant of the A5 SoC used in the iPhone 4S - perhaps at higher clocks. The move to a smaller process node should bring about a tangible increase in battery life. Depending on the workload, the iPhone 4S could burn more power than the iPhone 4 thanks to its beefy CPU + GPU combination. The move to 32nm could easily offset this penalty.

We've seen Apple experiment with Samsung's 32nm LP process in the past. Both the current generation Apple TV and the iPad 2,4 use a 32nm A5. In the case of the iPad 2,4, we saw a huge increase in battery life as a result of the move to 32nm. Some of the gains in battery life in the iPhone are likely to be offset by higher CPU/GPU clocks, but this is still the most likely approach for Apple this generation.


Original A5 (45nm, S5L8940, left), A5R2 (32nm, S5L8942, right)

As we mentioned back during our review of the iPad 2,4, it makes sense to test a new/unfamiliar process on a low volume part. By shipping 32nm A5 SoCs into some iPad 2s and the Apple TV (a hobby product), Apple could ride the 32nm yield curve up without adversely impacting shipments of its key money makers. With Samsung's 32nm LP process likely seeing much better yields now, it's time to deploy it in the next iPhone. Given much of the competition has moved to TSMC's 28nm process, Apple must remain competitive on the process node front as well. Shipping a 45nm SoC at the end of 2012 simply doesn't make sense. Although the current legal battles with Samsung could impact the relationship on the foundry side, simply switching to Global Foundries or TSMC is easier said than done. I would expect Apple to go through the same careful transition between Samsung and any other foundry as it did when it introduced the first 32nm A5s into the mix. The current expectations here are that we'll see Apple look at TSMC at the 20nm node.

With process node pretty much guaranteed, there's the question of CPU and GPU architectures.

Since the release of the original iPad, Apple has used the spring to introduce new SoC architectures in the iPad and later waterfall them down to the iPhone in the summer/fall. The A5X in the 3rd generation iPad however is still built on Samsung's 45nm LP process and is huge as a result of integrating four PowerVR SGX543 cores and implementing a 4 x 32-bit memory interface. The A5X needed the GPU power and memory bandwidth to drive the new iPad's retina display, but that power would be largely lost on the next iPhone.

The new iPhone is expected to have a 640 x 1136 resolution, thanks to its taller 4-inch display, but that's only 18% more pixels than the current iPhone 4S. A doubling of memory bandwidth and GPU compute horsepower would seem a bit excessive for current workloads. A ~20% increase in GPU clock speed, and faster DRAM would be enough to maintain current levels of performance on the higher resolution display.

Apple decoupled major cellular architecture and CPU architecture shifts in the past (e.g. iPhone 3G/3GS transition), which lends credibility to the idea of a move to A15 next year with the 4th gen iPad and sticking with the dual-core A9 design for the next iPhone. There's also the fact that TI is expected to be one of the first to bring an ARM Cortex A15 based SoC to market, and even it hasn't demonstrated an OMAP 5 running at shipping CPU clocks yet. I don't doubt that it's possible to ship an A15 based SoC before the end of the year, but based on the demos we've seen thus far, it seems highly unlikely to see one shipping in Q3. Apple doesn't like to be overly risky on the component front. There's nothing worse than a poorly yielding or otherwise problematic chip holding up shipments of one of your biggest revenue generators.

 

Chassis & Display Cellular Connectivity: LTE Expected
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  • MatthiasP - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    I'm missing some wild speculation about the camera. Reply
  • Alchemy69 - Monday, August 27, 2012 - link

    So, basically it will be a tweaked 4S with a case sufficiently different that everyone knows you have the new one. I find that all too believable. Reply
  • A5 - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Bigger screen + LTE + higher clocks are a fairly significant set of changes. Reply
  • GotThumbs - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Exactly!

    Apple will again be able to sell yet another generation iphone to its current iphone owners....so they can be the "first on the block". Seems kids just never grow up. It's still about having ice-cream and you don't. I'd like to know what the real difference is...other than fixing the flawed antenna and LTE. Oh! a means to get every Apple owner to buy new accessories to fit the new port connection.

    While I'll Never own an Apple product, I find Apple has been very savvy in getting the general consumer market to walk freely into Apples walled garden of control and zero options. When will the DOJ file against Apple for its Itunes requirement and its anti-competitive ways? The sheep number in the millions and I just keep watching from outside the walled garden.

    Interesting enough story. Since this is all based on conjecture.

    I find it interesting that Apples playbook seems to repeat itself, but hey their making billions on each incremental generation of one phone. Whats the saying...."A fool and his money.....?

    Best wishes,
    Reply
  • jrswizzle - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    Aside from your wild generalizations about Apple users, I find the hatred for iTunes amusing. You are by no means the only person to express a deep loathing for the program but what I can't seem to figure out is why?

    With the advent of iCloud, the only time I use iTunes is as a media player through my computer or to sync up my old iPod classic. What is so awful about Mac's default media player that it would warrant a DOJ filing? There are other media players out there for music on your iPhone: pandora, spotify just to name a few and I'd argue they'd probably save the avid music fan some dough.

    My only complaint with the program is its support for legacy devices which makes it a monster in terms of computer resources, but this is being rectified with the new update this fall (as they vastly reduce the iPod line imo).

    We get that you hate Apple and love your "open source" OSes. But those of us who prefer simplicity, ease of use and stability will continue to use Apple products. We don't need your pity or your baseless, and offensive, generalizations about our CHOICES.
    Reply
  • jrswizzle - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    As for the article, it makes perfect sense. Apple has never been one to add features for the sake of adding features. If it improves the overall user experience you can bet they'll include it. It's not about doing things that are new and different, its about doing things better. And of the features iOS devices have, I can only think of 1 Android does better (Google Now vs. Siri). Reply
  • Assimilator87 - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    I hope Apple surprises us and throws in a 32nm A5X. I'll be jumping ship to iOS when my Palm Pre 2 dies. I've used Android on my tablet and the much smaller game selection, on top of the fragmentation due to all the SoCs, makes it excruciating. Reply
  • name99 - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    It's bizarre that the people who go on about "sheep" behavior seem the most clueless about human psychology.

    As I have said before, the issue is not coolness, it is delight.

    - coolness is other directed. It was what other companies ship. It is about how OTHER people view you and your device. It is about having a few gimmicks you can show others so that they ooh and ahh.
    - what Apple ships is not coolness, it is DELIGHT. Delight is SELF-DIRECTED. It is about devices that bring you joy day after day, and who cares whether they demo well, or can be shown to others.

    Samsung, right now, is a company that cares a lot about coolness, and nothing about delight. That's why, to take a recent example, they ship a Note 10.1 with two flashy features you can show your friends --- pen, and the equivalent of MacOS 1.0's desk accessories, allowing you to open multiple apps at once --- but both these features actually perform horrendously. They do the cool job fine --- show them to your friends for a few minutes and they will be impressed --- but they do the delight job abysmally.

    And one of the ways that you engender delight is what Apple is doing here, constant refinement . When you buy your next phone, it feels familiar --- just better in every way.
    Reply
  • Tegeril - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    This, exactly. Reply
  • JoshAlfie - Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - link

    This is actually a very interesting analysis. Nice one. Reply

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