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Handhelds Apple Hardware Technology

A Close Look At Apple's A4 Chip 245

Posted by timothy
from the a-novel-in-five-parts dept.
PabloSandoval48 writes "Apple's A4 processor is heavily influenced by Apple's long-established relationship with Samsung and represents an evolution rather than a revolution in circuit design. A team of experts takes a look at the evidence on A4 in an attempt to determine its origins and the influence of recent Apple acquisitions in the area of chip design."
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A Close Look At Apple's A4 Chip

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  • by Ukab the Great (87152) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @12:42PM (#32604448)

    A team of experts takes a look at the evidence on A4 in an attempt to determine its origins and the influence of recent Apple acquisitions in the area of chip design."

    The team of experts concludes the A4 was designed by Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Revolver.

  • by Noren (605012) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @12:43PM (#32604464)
    I hear that the new A4 chip will allow the iPad to grow to 210 × 297 mm [wikipedia.org]!
    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 17, 2010 @12:47PM (#32604508)

      I don't see what's so interesting here. It's a standard, general-purpose, consumer-grade embedded processor. There are billions of these around in all sorts of devices.

      Is this one of those things that people get excited about just because it's from Apple, but is otherwise totally unremarkable?

      • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 17, 2010 @12:53PM (#32604572)

        I don't see what's so interesting here. It's a standard, general-purpose, consumer-grade embedded processor. There are billions of these around in all sorts of devices.

        Is this one of those things that people get excited about just because it's from Apple, but is otherwise totally unremarkable?

        I think it is just because it is Apple. For some reason, the thought of Apple being involved in processor design makes these people jizz in their pants.

      • I don't see what's so interesting here. It's a standard, general-purpose, consumer-grade embedded processor. There are billions of these around in all sorts of devices.

        Isn't that sorta like saying a Core i7 is just another x86 chip. It's a standard, general-purpose, consumer-grade processor. I don't know about you but I can't design an ARM chip and you discount the work of engineers who did the design work. From what I know about it, Apple designed the chip to be more powerful and and more energy efficient than a standard A8. Making something to do both isn't an easy task. Now it won't turn into the next Skynet but it is an improvement for those who might use it.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by nomadic (141991)
          Isn't that sorta like saying a Core i7 is just another x86 chip. It's a standard, general-purpose, consumer-grade processor. I don't know about you but I can't design an ARM chip and you discount the work of engineers who did the design work.

          Doesn't the article discount the work of ARM's engineers by pretending that Apple created this thing?
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by sznupi (719324)

          It's unlikely the CPU core was modified much, they probably used some more efficient in comparison to what they had DSPs/etc., or throttling methods of those; so A8 part doesn't really come into consideration (and even if - then Apple has it just in time for A9 SoCs showing up, for example)

          Oh, and you overestimate how designing SoC can often look nowadays... [design-reuse.com] (screenshot; yes, even basically point'n'click CPU customisation)

      • Is this one of those things that people get excited about just because it's from Apple, but is otherwise totally unremarkable?

        No more or less unremarkable than Snapdragon, Tegra 2, or any of the other similar products that are of great interest in this space. Those are all fairly standard ARM cores, too, but nobody's saying anything about their limited scope of customization as being "off the shelf".

        It's more likely that this is one of those things that provides a springboard for bitching about Apple out of selective and convenient comparisons, because that Apple logo is a waving red cape in the bullfightingshit arena. Instead o

  • by Estanislao Martínez (203477) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @12:50PM (#32604550) Homepage
    The A4 chip doesn't really seem to have any really fancy technologies in it. Mostly, it's just repackaging and combination of other components that already exist, but instead of combining them in the generic, general purpose manner they normally are, putting them all together in one chip allows a bunch of superfluous stuff to be eliminated.
    • by yumyum (168683)

      Apple's own video about the iPhone 4 mentions the power-saving advances of the A4. Not sure what they did though, and the article does not talk about that.

    • In other words, it's just another Samsung processor like the ones in previous iPhones, which were already Apple-custom anyway. A4 is just marketing. Apple has been using more and more custom application processors for a while now; they've just decided to flip the PR switch and use it as an advertised feature.

    • From what I know about chips, real estate is important. You only have so much space to put things on a chip. When most companies get a chip from Samsung, they often get a generic chip. Even with customizations, they may have components that they don't need. For example, they may have to take a chip that has camera inputs even though the phone might not have a camera because it matches other specifications. It looks like Apple went further into customizations by specifying what should and should not be

  • Hubris. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by RightSaidFred99 (874576) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @12:57PM (#32604622)

    Apple is not a semiconductor company. Sure, they bought one but it's not their core competency. So like everything, they thought they could do a better job than everyone else at this too.

    They're going to have to spend money keeping the A4 competitive with other ARM SoC offerings from companies who make them for a living. They're going to have to keep them competitive with the ever-improving Atom chips which are slowly encroaching on sub-watt territory held by ARM. Otherwise, their hardware will lag behind. They're already in a world of hurt with so many vendors ramping to release Android portable devices of all sorts form factors, now they have to compete in the CPU arena too?

    I just don't see the point. It'll be interesting in 3 years to look back and see if this was a wise decision.

    • by wandazulu (265281) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @01:12PM (#32604780)

      Say what you will about the position Apple is currently in, but they have been screwed over many times by other companies (Microsoft with Office, Adobe with Premiere, IBM with PowerPC @ 3ghz), and they figured that it was critical to their success that they take control of their own destiny.

      What they've done is made a streamlined version of an ARM processor that is useful for their current needs; they do not need to "keep up" with anyone in that they get their processor to do what they want it to do for this particular need. If anything, by not having to cater to anyone but themselves, they have the ability to have custom hardware, but still based on the widely-used ARM architecture, so they don't have to completely re-tool when they come up with an A5 or A6 or whatever. Jobs himself said that they are not in the business of licensing their technology. You won't see an A4 being offered in lots of 100 to anyone for other purposes, it's a chip for Apple and their products only.

      I was wondering too about the wisdom of this move, but it shows that they are not going to hitch their wagon to anyone's horse but their own, and that they have the ability to modify the horse to pull whatever load is necessary at that moment, a new iPad, new iPhone, AppleTV, whatever.

      • by supremebob (574732) <themejunky@geocitie[ ]om ['s.c' in gap]> on Thursday June 17, 2010 @01:42PM (#32605178) Journal

        IBM Eventually got the Power line of processors up to 6 GHz in their test labs. Apple just wasn't patient enough to wait for it, though.

        • by UnknowingFool (672806) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:03PM (#32605452)
          Yes but IBM would have had to make a custom chip for Apple as their generic PowerPCs are made for workstations/servers not consumer desktops. How much would IBM invested in that considering that Apple would only be a small customer. IBM's internal customers would order far more chips. Also another point of contention is that IBM's mobile chip line lagged way behind Intel's offerings. IBM never made a mobile G5.
        • As someone who heated a 1 bedroom apartment with a QuadCore G5, let me tell you the real reason what not the 3Ghz mark. I mean most chips today are still around that 2 - 3Ghz mark only now with multiple cores. The problem with the PPC 900 series was they were never going to work in a laptop form factor. And they saw that is where the market was going. The switch to intel had to do with the failure of being able to put a "G5" chip into a laptop.

        • by BlueStraggler (765543) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:46PM (#32605936)
          IBM's Power line of processors isn't the quite same as the PowerPC line. You can't really squeeze a 6 GHz mainframe core into an iBook.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by cowscows (103644)

        Also they can always leave themselves the option of going back to 3rd party ARM chips or whatever the new big thing is if they fall too far behind with their own efforts. If they keep this option in mind as they move forward, they can certainly leave themselves in a position where doing so isn't even particularly difficult or painful. They've made some serious architecture switches with the Mac platform already, they know how to handle that sort of thing.

    • Re:Hubris. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Lunix Nutcase (1092239) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @01:22PM (#32604902)

      They're going to have to spend money keeping the A4 competitive with other ARM SoC offerings from companies who make them for a living.

      Why? It's not as if they are marketing the A4 to other companies in competition to those other chips. The A4 is being built for themselves only so it only has to be enough to fit their needs.

      • by jackspenn (682188)

        Why?

        Umm, for starters there are going to be 2GHz Android modible phones by the end of this year. Android phone makers can select from a variety of different processors. If Apple cannot innovate faster than the whole of them. Companies like Samsung and Intel will school them.

        Just look at the smart phone market, look at how much faster Android is innovating, look at how in the last 1.5 years Android came from behind to being the leader. Apple is chasing Android innovations or ignoring what customers want

      • As the other poster replied, hardware capabilities are part of the puzzle. If their competitors have chips 50-100% faster, they will be able to do more things on their platform than Apple can. Facial recognition, realtime video editing, whatever gets enabled by having faster CPUs.
    • Apple has some serious funds to make sure the situation never arises again: a 3rd party controlling their future. Call it what you want, it's a ballsy move and I hope they do well at it. There have been a lot of disappointments in the past when they relied on partners' efforts.
    • Re:Hubris. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by droopycom (470921) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @01:31PM (#32605042)

      But they are not going to have to spend time and money trying to design a chip that will be able to be used in 10 different products.

      See, from my own experience, SoC companies pack more features in their SoC so that they can fit in several products or markets. Apple will only worries about their own devices.

      In short, Qualcomm is trying to please 5 or 6 different handsets manufacturers with their snapdragon, each with their own ideas and requests, and they will have to make compromise, while Apple can just focus on getting the exact chip they want for their products.

    • Apple is not a semiconductor company. Sure, they bought one but it's not their core competency.

      Why can't it be?

      Why would a company so focused on making consumer electronics and computers, not decide that over time it is of benefit to move in the direction of also being strong in semiconductor design?

      After all, it's not like they built the A4 from scratch thinking they could do better than anyone. That would be hubris. No, instead they took the ARM core and customized around it, which seems perfectly withi

    • It helps to keep things in perspective. AMD has a market capitalization of 6 billion dollars. Apple has 4x that in cash alone, and is worth 40x what AMD is. Apple's interest in the CPU market is far less involved than AMD's, so even this isn't a fair comparison. It is a fairly minor investment, considering Apple's size.

      Another way of looking at it is that Apple is a company that primarily sells CPUs and other computer components packaged really well. In this context, control over the components is important

    • Technically Apple bought a semiconductor design company. From what I understand, Apple wasn't happy with the original iPhone chip. The problem is that they got exactly the chip that they specified. Apple just didn't have the expertise to create the specifications that they needed. So they bought PA Semi.
    • by rolfwind (528248)

      They're already in a world of hurt with so many vendors ramping to release Android portable devices of all sorts form factors, now they have to compete in the CPU arena too?

      WTF are you smoking and why won't you share it with the rest of us?

      World of hurt? The iPhone 4 is probably going to break all previous sale's records. This is like saying that Apple is a world of hurt because Gateway/Dell/Sony/Toshiba offer more models and sell more quantity than Apple. Yeah, Apple is hurting there too, with their mar

      • -Android runs on anything. Which means when android phones add things like gyroscope, most apps will likely be ignore it for the first year since they can't rely on certain features being present. The innovation in this aspect will have lag behind if Apple stays determined. The interface I'm sure isn't as reliable from model to model

        Android OS already has a standard interface for accessing gyroscopes. I don't know if any phones use it yet but if developers want to they can support it in their code today.

        and I never heard iPhone users tell each other to download and install the latest firmware (yes, iTunes does it automatically).

        iTunes does it? You mean the phone can't update itself? Hardly sounds like an advantage. For the last Android update that was released, I was able to update my phone as soon as it came out while sitting in a coffee shop away from my computer.

        Build quality. For having dozens of models, every goddamn android phone looks like the same basic heap of cheap plastic with the 4 confusing buttons in front.

        Sturgeon's Law, this is nothing new. But there are high quality Android phones if that's what yo

    • by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

      They're going to have to spend money keeping the A4 competitive with other ARM SoC offerings from companies who make them for a living.

      No they aren't, the A4 is Samsung's chip. Apple designers were just involved in the process this time. More than likely, they simply had a set of specifications that their designers wanted, all of the grunt work (including 99.9% of the chip design - it's the next iteration of an existing chip line) was Samsung.

      Jobs taking credit for the A4 is like Obama taking credit for putting out the oil booms in the Gulf. It's total bull.

    • Actually... they were quite a formidable semiconductor company.

      For all those PowerPC chips, Apple designed northbridges. Uni-North (Uni-N) is family featured in the G4s.
      U3 and U4 is used in G5s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PowerPC_970).

  • Chipworks (Score:4, Informative)

    by edelbrp (62429) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @12:57PM (#32604624)

    Chipworks had some interesting eye-candy die photos and a breakdown of the iPad and A4 for those who haven't seen that yet:

    iPad Teardown [chipworks.com]

  • Needed for TPM? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by thms (1339227) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @01:05PM (#32604698)

    Are there ARM designs yet which support the Trusted Platform Module specification? (Remember this fuzz years ago wrt. Microsoft and TCPA/NGSCB?)

    If I were a hardware company and want to sell DRM'ed content with a hardware dongle, this would be the way to go, having the encryption key which ties the media to the device stored directly inside the CPU would make my platform very attractive, maybe even a de-facto standard, for certain media control freaks. And you could make sure that only signed code runs it from the moment it boots, turning it into the ultimate closed system where the producing company stays in control.

    • by guruevi (827432)

      Why would you want to do that? First of all, TPM chips need to be able to be simply updated without affecting the rest of the system and TPM would also need to provide the ability for the end-user to update or delete their keys (in case of theft or unauthorized access), therefore integrating them into the processor would be a Bad Idea (tm) - as soon as somebody does something bad (either a bad firmware update or a hacking attempt) you would brick the whole thing and since it's in the processor, you would ha

    • Re:Needed for TPM? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Wesley Felter (138342) <wesley@felter.org> on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:34PM (#32605790) Homepage

      The ARM equivalent of TPM is called TrustZone and pretty much all SoCs seem to have it these days. It's not clear whether Apple uses it considering that they never used the TPM in the Mac. Apple may be counting on security by obscurity.

  • Samsung? (Score:3, Funny)

    by garyisabusyguy (732330) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @01:20PM (#32604866)

    Didn't samsung end up as the last supplier licensed to use Alpha tech?

    Since I choose to believe that Apple has resurrected Alpha, no reasoned argument can change my mind :)

  • Surely people are missing the next step? Apple want's to bring the SoC design in-house. It's currently a very fragile all-in-one unit provider. You pay for nothing revolutionary in an Apple product, instead you pay for a unique design/interface and the Apple goodwill 'mark-up'. The latter of which is a license the print money. So really Apple need to hit the semi-conductor market to maintain market dominance through R&D. In-house developments don't run the risk of being licenced to your competitor, and

  • by peter303 (12292) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:23PM (#32605664)
    (After a detour to intel who bought patents and quashed them.) The alpha CPU was quite respected in its day. But since it commercially failed like nearly every other none x86 chip family.
  • But What I would find really interesting is what it would take to make Apple scrap the chip designs they bought and go back to Intel processors.
  • It's all marketing (Score:4, Insightful)

    by wiredlogic (135348) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:54PM (#32606026)

    Look at all the hype the shiny "A4" name has garnered them despite it being essentially made with commonplace cores that are already widely used. The switch to Intel took away the special "uniqueness" factor that Macs had on 68k and PPC. This is just a marketing ploy to convince the fanboys that these new platforms have something extra special that you can't get with any old beigebox phone.

It's a naive, domestic operating system without any breeding, but I think you'll be amused by its presumption.

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