Last month Apple introduced its latest generation of iPad Pro tablets, and much to the surprise of many, the new iDevices didn’t come with a high-end variant of Apple’s newest A13 SoC. Instead, the iPads used an SoC that Apple was calling the A12Z, clearly indicating that it was based on the same Vortex/Tempest architecture as the earlier A12X, which was used in the 2018 iPad Pros. The unusual move from Apple left us suspecting that the A12Z may not have even been a new chip, but rather a new bin of the A12X, and today we finally have confirmation of that theory thanks to TechInsights.

In a brief tweet, the technical analysis and reverse engineering firm published a note announcing their findings, along with side-by-side die shots comparing A12Z and A12X. In short, the two chips are seemingly identical, with every last functional block in exactly the same place and the same size on A12Z as it was A12X.

While TechInsights’ die shot analysis doesn’t suss out some finer details such as chip steppings – whether A12Z is even on a newer stepping, or if it’s the same stepping as the A12X that Apple was shipping in 2018 for the IPad Pro launch – it’s clear that in terms of silicon, A12Z doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

Instead, the notable changes between the two chips is in their binning/configuration: whereas the A12X only ever shipped with 7 of its GPU clusters enabled, A12Z ships with all 8 enabled. And while a small change in the grand picture of things, it makes sense for Apple to finally enable the 8th cluster for a bit more performance. A12X is produced on TSMC’s 7nm line, and when it was released in 2018, it was one of the biggest 7nm chips being churned out. So Apple should be enjoying much better yields 18 months later, reducing the need to bin to a lower spec to salvage chips.

Apple SoC Comparison
  A12Z A12X A13 A12
CPU 4x Apple Vortex
4x Apple Tempest
4x Apple Vortex
4x Apple Tempest
2x Apple Lightning
4x Apple Thunder
2x Apple Vortex
4x Apple Tempest
GPU 8-cluster, A12-gen 7-cluster, A12-gen
(+ 1 disabled)
4-cluster, A13-gen 4-cluster, A12-gen
Memory Bus 128-bit LPDDR4X 128-bit LPDDR4X 64-bit LPDDR4X 64-bit LPDDR4X
Manufacturing Process TSMC 7nm (N7) TSMC 7nm (N7) TSMC 7nm (N7P) TSMC 7nm (N7)

As for why Apple would opt to re-use A12X for their 2020 tablets instead of commissioning an A13X, while we can only speculate, it almost certainly comes down to economics, as the tablet market is quite different from the smartphone market. Apple is virtually unchallenged as far as high-performance Arm tablets go, and even then, the number of iPads they sell has always been a drop in the bucket compared to the number of iPhones they sell. So there are fewer devices to amortize the costs of chip development against, and all the while chip development costs are continuing to rise with each new generation of photolithography technology. In short, at some point it has to stop making sense to create new chip designs on a yearly basis for mid-volume products, and Apple may very well have finally hit that mark with their tablet SoCs.

Source: TechInsights

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  • Sahrin - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    It'd be interesting to know exactly when this decision was made. Presumably since they're the same silicon they're pin-compatible, so it could be the 14X was just straight up yanked and the decision made to go ahead with the old internals just a few weeks before it was to enter production (~90 days before launch maybe?).

    I'm wondering if it's because of iPad sales, or something else.
    Reply
  • brucethemoose - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    Not a chance. Testing and validation alone is going to take way longer than 90 days unless they rebrand the entire iPad.

    I bet the decision was made years ago, when they started developing the A13.
    Reply
  • Sahrin - Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - link

    It does take longer than 90 days, but the 12X/Z design was already pre-validated because it's the same design. It's entirely possible that the 14X-based tablet was pushed back less than 6 months before launch - until mass manufacturing begins (~30 days before launch) they could do this if they are willing to sit on the CPU inventory (I agree, this is unlikely - but not impossible; nVidia e.g. is known to do this).

    It could also be that they're capacity constrained on 5 nm - remember, TSMC says that 5 nm is sold out; they could've gone through validation with the 14X, and then decided to allocate that capacity to the A14 and just continue production of the current gen hardware.

    The ~90 days is a *very* rough estimate of the time to process a wafer (~10 weeks to fabricate the wafer, then 2 weeks to cut and package) - it's probably a bit longer than this, but that's the ballpark.

    I agree your version is more likely, I'm just curious how close Apple was willing to cut it. Knowing the timing would tell us a lot about how they make decisions and what the critical factor was. Economics is the most likely answer, but also the least fun.
    Reply
  • Quantumz0d - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    An ultra over hyped product which cannot do any basic compute but rather a media consumption device on top it lacks basic analog 3.5mm jack in the name of greedy wireless but rubbish piece of technology which has planned obsolescence. To make it worse it's very fragile and weak.

    They will ofc recycle their ARM processors, Google was a total idiot not to make Android tablet but chase their wild wet dreams of Apple type rubbish OS called Chrome OS which calls itself Linux yet nothing like Linux, has tons of Filesystem retarded-ness, Unfortunately all school kids use that dumb tech rather than a proper Linux machine or Windows, even Microsoft wants this Apple type junk ecosystem with walls thus Surface an x86 machine which cannot run Linux and same planned obsolescence with soldered and glued down parts, pure trash.

    A shame on computing itself.
    Reply
  • The Garden Variety - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    Hi Quantumz0d --

    I'm curious if you ever looked into some mental health support resources like I (and others) suggested a few months ago?
    Reply
  • Deicidium369 - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    Ever have the displeasure of using Google Drive? Where a 1.5GB file might be listed as 1GB or 2GB - but never an exact size (Mega and 1fichier does)... or how it takes like 15 mins to zip up a couple files - rather than letting you line up files to download (like Mega and 1fichier do).... Google is lucky to get out of their own way - Chrome OS was an interesting but to my use case completely useless.

    I agree with all the kiddies only knowing Apple and other super dumbed down consumer tech - they will be the death of proper computing (got started 35 years ago with HP-UX/SunOS/IRIX/SCO)..

    But most of the other parts of your post are a bit kooky.
    Reply
  • eastcoast_pete - Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - link

    Reuse, reduce, recycle - Apple style. And, why not? Essentially no competition in the premium tablet space, more space for heat dissipation and larger battery.
    With those iPad pro specs, I wish even more that MS would have given it's Surface Pro 7s a bigger battery. At least for me, that 2-in-1 is the only real competitor for the iPad Pro, but it's battery life let's it down.
    Reply

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