A9's GPU: Imagination PowerVR GT7600

With so much time spent talking about A9 from the perspective of its manufacturing process and its Twister CPU, it’s all too easy to forget that Apple has been working on far more under the hood than just CPU performance. As has been the case for generations now, Apple continues to focus on GPU performance, laying the groundwork for significant performance improvements with every generation.

Going all the way back to the first iPhone and its Samsung-developed SoC, Apple has been a patron of Imagination Technologies and their PowerVR GPUs. This has been a productive relationship for both parties, and for A9 this hasn’t changed. To no surprise then, the GPU in the A9 is another design in Imagination’s PowerVR Rogue family, the GT7600.

Briefly, while Apple continues to not disclose the GPU used in their designs – referring to the A9’s GPU as iOS GPU Family 3 v1 – a look at the iOS Developer Library makes it clear what GPU family is being used. Apple still uses tile-based deferred rendering GPUs (to which only PowerVR fits the description), so the only real questions are which family is in use and how many cores are present.

With A8 and its GX6450, there was a pretty clear smoking gun to identify the GPU family via the inclusion of ASTC support, a feature only available on Series 6XT and newer GPUs. There aren’t any such smoking guns on the A9, but the Metal Feature tables indicate that there are a handful of new low-level features which are indicative of a newer revision of the PowerVR Rogue architecture. Coupled with the fact that Imagination announced PowerVR Series 7 nearly a year ago and Apple has proven to be able to implement a new PowerVR design in under a year, and it’s a safe bet that A9 is using a Series 7 design.

As for the configuration, the A9 die shot quickly answers that one. There are 6 distinct GPU cores on the A9 die, divided up into 3 pairs with a shared texture unit in between them. So it may have taken Apple a generation longer than I initially expected, but with A9 we’re finally looking at a 6 core GPU design for the iPhone.

From a feature and design standpoint then, the GT7600 is not a significant departure from the GPUs in the A8 and A7 SoCs, however it does have some notable improvements along with some optimizations to boost performance across the board. Notably, relative to the GX6450 it features a geometry tessellation co-processor as a base feature, a function that was merely optional on Series6XT and, at least in Apple’s case not used. Unfortunately, looking through Apple’s developer documentation it does not appear that tessellation support has been added for Metal, so assuming for the moment that Apple hasn’t stripped this hardware out, they definitely don’t have API support for it.

Otherwise the bulk of Imagination’s focus has been on small tweaks to improve the Rogue architecture’s overall efficiency. Among these, the Special Function Units can now natively handle FP16 operations, saving power versus the all-FP32 SFUs of Series6XT. SFU operations can now also be co-issued with ALU operations, which improves performance when SFUs are being issued (which in Imagination’s experience, has been more than expected). Finally, the Vertex Data Master (geometry frontend), Compute Data Master (compute frontend), and the Coarse Grain Scheduler have all been updated to improve their throughput, and in the case of the scheduler improving its ability to keep USCs from stalling on tile-interdependencies.

Looking at the broader picture, after initially being surprised that Apple didn’t jump to a 6 core design with A8, with A9 it makes a lot of sense why they’d do it now. GPUs have and continue to be the biggest consumers of memory bandwidth in high-performance SoCs, to the point where Apple has outfit all of their tablet-class SoCs with a wider 128-bit memory bus in order to feed those larger GPUs. Conversely, a 64-bit memory bus with LPDDR3 has always represented a memory bandwidth limit that would bottleneck a more aggressive GPU design. With the move to LPDDR4 however, Apple has doubled their memory bandwidth, and coupled with the larger L3 cache means that they now have the means to effectively feed a larger 6 core GPU.

Overall then, between the 50% increase in the number of GPU cores, Imagination’s architectural efficiency improvements, Apple’s own implementation optimizations, and what I don’t doubt to be at least a decent increase in the clockspeed of the GPU, Apple is promoting that A9 should see an incredible 90% increase in GPU performance relative to A8. And as we’ll see in our performance benchmarks, they are more than capable of delivering on that promise.

Mobile SoC GPU Comparison
  PowerVR SGX 543MP3 PowerVR G6430 PowerVR GX6450 PowerVR GT7600
Used In iPhone 5 iPhone 5s iPhone 6 iPhone 6s
SIMD Name USSE2 USC USC USC
# of SIMDs 12 4 4 6
MADs per SIMD 4 32 32 32
Total MADs 48 128 128 192
Theoretical
GFLOPS @ 300MHz
28.8 GFLOPS 76.8 GFLOPS 76.8 GFLOPS 115.2 GFLOPS
Pixels/Clock N/A 8 8 12
Texels/Clock N/A 8 8 12
A9’s CPU: Twister System Performance
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  • Der2 - Monday, November 02, 2015 - link

    Its about time. Reply
  • zeeBomb - Monday, November 02, 2015 - link

    Oh man...oh man it's finally here. I just wanted to say thank you for faithfuflly using all your findings to incorporate this review. It may have take a little longer than expected, but hey, this is my first anandtech review that I probably camped out for it to drop, lol...thanks again Joshua and Brandon! Reply
  • zeeBomb - Monday, November 02, 2015 - link

    Ugh. I meant Ryan Smith...sorry! Waking up at 5 isn't the ideal way to go... Reply
  • Samus - Thursday, November 05, 2015 - link

    That's what she said, Der bra. Reply
  • zeeBomb - Sunday, November 08, 2015 - link

    Very valid point. Speaking of valid points... 500! Reply
  • trivor - Thursday, November 05, 2015 - link

    Have to disagree with your statement that the high end Android phone space has stood still. With this round of phones the Android OEMs have all upped their game to approximate parity with the iPhones and in some cases exceed the performance and quality of images taken by an iPhone. In addition, on phones like the LG G4 the option of having manual control of your picture taking and supporting RAW/JPEG simultaneously is a huge advance for smartphones. Add to that, phase change focusing, laser rangefinder for close focus, generous internal storage (32 GB) and micro SD expansion (which works quite well on Lollipop - not sure about Marshmallow yet) you have a great camera phone. It also has OIS 2.0 (whatever that means) at a significantly lower cost than even the low end (16 GB) iPhone 6s @ $450-500 for the G4 versus $650 for the iPhone. While iOS seems to get apps updated a little quicker, look nicer from what I've heard and seem to be a little more feature rich. Conversely, the Material Design language has greatly improved the state of Android interfaces to give Android OEMs a much more stable OS - although the first builds of Lollipop were not ready for prime time. Also, let's not forget that Android dominates the low - middle range of Smartphones below $400 with near flagship specs, excellent cameras in phones like the Motorola Style (Pure Edition in the US), Motorola Play (is apparently the base model for the Droid Maxx 2 for Verizon, a number of the Asus Zenphones, the Moto G and E. Also, the new Nexus' (6P and 5X) are both competitive across the board with new cameras with 1.55 micron pixels that let in significantly more light than the 1.12 pixels in other cameras, are competitively priced (especially the 6P @ $499), and are overall very nice handsets. Finally, the customizability and wide variety of handsets at EVERY PRICE POINT make Android a compelling choice for many consumers. Reply
  • Fidelator - Friday, November 06, 2015 - link

    I couldn't agree more, the Android space has not stayed still, if anything, most of the problems on that side were due to Qualcomm's lack of a good offering this year, still, the phones were further refines in other areas, saying this is overall the best camera phone given the only advantage it has over the competition is reduced motion blur is complete bull, the UI is far from the best given that auto on both the SGS6/Note 5 and the G4 is as effective yet those still offer great manual settings.

    The -barely over 720p- display on the 6S is inexcusable for 2015 and given the starting price of the 6S should not be passed as an acceptable not even as a good display.

    Where Apple deserves credit is with the A9, it is miles ahead of anything the competition currently offers, they have made some fantastic design choices, it just is on the next level.
    Reply
  • robertthekillertire - Monday, November 09, 2015 - link

    I'm actually very happy with Apple's decision to stick with a lower-resolution screen. Which would you rather: a smartphone with an insanely high pixel count that your eyes probably can't appreciate anyway, or a smartphone with a lower PPI (but barely perceptibly so) that gets better battery life and has smoother UI and game performance because it's not trying to push an absurd number of pixels at any given moment? The tradeoff just doesn't seem worth it to me. Reply
  • MathieuLF - Tuesday, November 10, 2015 - link

    But your eyes can tell the difference... When I had my iPhone 6+ and Nexus 6P side by side I can see it right away that the Nexus has more pixels Reply
  • Cantona7 - Tuesday, December 01, 2015 - link

    But the difference is not large enough to justify heavier power consumption and greater graphics requirement. I agree that more pixels is certainly more pleasant to the eyes, but I'd rather greater battery life. If the Nexus 6P had a lower resolution screen, it would have a even greater battery life which would be awesome Reply

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