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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 Graff (532189) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @01:46PM (#32604498)

    ...but if I remember correctly, the same A4 chip in the iPad is supposed to be showing up in the new iPhone. Can someone confirm?

    Apple does list the processor in the new iPhone 4G as being an A4:
    iPhone Design [apple.com]

  • Chipworks (Score:4, Informative)

    by edelbrp (62429) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @01:57PM (#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]

  • by FooAtWFU (699187) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:03PM (#32604680) Homepage
    What? Pay people more? Unthinkable. [slashdot.org]
  • by MBoffin (259181) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:09PM (#32604754) Homepage

    This is overly pedantic, but it's the "iPhone 4", not the "iPhone 4G". It is the 4th generation of the iPhone, so it's "4G" in that sense, but it does not make use of any 4G mobile network.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:16PM (#32604822)

    You do realize that the suicide rate at that Chinese plant is actually *lower* than the national average, right?

  • by UnknowingFool (672806) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:23PM (#32604918)

    Looks like Apple is looking to dominate the entire vertical space from the silicon in the chip and selling directly to consumers with Apple stores along with all the software that consumers buy. And it wants a cut of everything:

    For your conspiracy theory to make some sort of sense, Apple would have to get a cut of anything that Samsung makes. It doesn't. Apple contracted Samsung to make a chip for them. Like other customers, Apple created their own design for Samsung to manufacture. Unlike other customers, Apple went deeper into the design customizations than other customers. Samsung does not owe Apple for any other ARM chips they make for other customers; and it is unlikely that Apple will allow Samsung to manufacture the A4 for their other customers.

    1. Hardware of the iDevices

    The last time I checked, Apple made their hardware or contracted parties to make it. This is no different than any manufacturer these days. Dell, HP does exactly the same Are you objecting that these companies make money off their own products?

    2. Monthly kickback from AT&T on iPhone users monthly fees. (This is the real reason for exclusivity to shitty AT&T, Apple is just too greedy)

    Many cell phones makers have exclusive contracts with carriers for certain models that have kickbacks. When a carrier advertises "free" phones, do you really think that the manufacturer really got no money when you got a free phone with a new contract/contract extension.

    3. A forced 30% cut of all software sales for the iDevices.

    I believe that is something called "overhead" that Apple charges a developer to sell through their store. I don't know if you ever developed for mobile devices before but that is very reasonable. Before the App store, some stores charged 45% plus fees. And this is no different than other stores like Android. If a developer charges no fees for the app, Apple will not charge the developer.

    4. And now a 40% cut of ad sales in Apps(while conveniently banning Admob).

    Apple is setting up an Ad system. They expect to charge for fees. Are you objecting that they should charge for their work?

    Looks like Apple is leaving no stone unturned to make money hand over fist and is rolling in billions of cash. What boggles the mind is why can't they pay a few more bucks to the people working in Foxconn(who are jumping off buildings) who actually make these iDevices? Couldn't hurt Apple's bottomline really that much, can it?

    First of all, Apple is not Foxconn's only nor biggest customer. Almost everyone from Dell to nintendo to Intel uses Foxconn. Second, Apple did raise the wages for the employees that work on their products. [slashdot.org] .

  • by medcalf (68293) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:45PM (#32605206) Homepage

    Scary maybe, though I note that the ease of moving between mobile platforms means that Apple is unlikely to ever achieve any real lock-in of users.I think you're pretty far off, though, on items 2, 3 and 4. More basically, it's with the concept of a company being "greedy," which I'll get to after I address the specific points.

    Yes, Apple apparently did initially get a portion of the monthly fee. (Piper Jaffrey's analysts put that at $18 per phone per month, IIRC.) I don't believe that is the case any more. My understanding is that this went away when they started offering the iPhones subsidized by the carriers. Even if they still do get a portion of the fees, though, so what? It's a part of the cost of service, not a tool of generating monopoly. (If anything, it's the opposite, as higher-priced iPhone service plans turn away users.)

    Yes, Apple gets a cut of 30% on sales of third party apps. So what? They take 30%, and give me (as an iPhone app developer) a platform for sales, a distribution system and a much reduced cost to advertise. The 30% they take for those services is utterly worthwhile, particularly for independent developers.

    Yes, Apple takes a 40% cut of ad sales through iAd. And no cut at all through other services, which pay (last I looked) between $0.30 and $1.00 eCPM. Given the ad customers Apple is signing up, I'd be amazed if iAd didn't pay better. (AdMob is among the worst in terms of eCPM, which is the only number that matters to a developer that wants to make money off of advertising.) As to banning AdMob, what do you think would be Google's reaction to Apple seeking analytics on Google searches about mobile devices? My bet is that it wouldn't be much different in effect than what Apple has done. Apple is under no obligation to provide their competitor with a competitive advantage against Apple.

    As for companies being "greedy," that's really an utterly irrelevant consideration. All companies exist first and foremost to deliver a profit to their owners/shareholders. If they don't maximize their profit, they are not doing their fiduciary duty, and in most countries (certainly including the US) can be sued for that. Maximizing profit, though, is trickier than you might think. For example, Android is a real competitor to Apple in the phone business. If Apple gets too stupid (as they are in serious danger of with many of their app store policies, and particularly with the lack of transparency to developers and the interminable delays to get bug-fix releases up on the store), then Android will cannibalize iPhone sales. (Eventually, there will be similar competitors for the iPad and the iPod Touch, one assumes.) Thus, Apple can charge so much that customers flee to other platforms, or be so awful to developers that they flee to other platforms taking customers with them, and in the process Apple would have overreached and the market would correct that. So "greed" isn't really involved, because being "too greedy" inevitably leads a company to failure, unless the government is propping the company up. Or, in the American case, the unions whose workers are employed by the company is more to the point.

  • by SuperKendall (25149) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:48PM (#32605246)

    This is overly pedantic, but it's the "iPhone 4", not the "iPhone 4G". It is the 4th generation of the iPhone, so it's "4G" in that sense, but it does not make use of any 4G mobile network.

    Well since we are being pedantic, the iPhone 4 (and 3Gs for that matter) has full support for a variety of 4G networks being deployed, basically LTE.

    AT&T is supposedly doing some trials next year and rolling out 4G in 2011.

  • by UnknowingFool (672806) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @03:03PM (#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.
  • by pohl (872) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @03:08PM (#32605494) Homepage

    How is it not the 4th model of the iPhone? There was the original, which spoke the 2.5G Edge protocol, then there was the 2nd one which spoke a 3G protocol, then there was the 3rd phone - the 3GS - which added a faster processor and video recording, and now there is the 4th phone, dubbed the iPhone 4.

  • by peter303 (12292) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @03:23PM (#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.
  • Re:Needed for TPM? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Wesley Felter (138342) <wesley@felter.org> on Thursday June 17, 2010 @03:34PM (#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.

  • by jedidiah (1196) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @04:06PM (#32606130) Homepage

    IOW. There is no reason for this to be news. The only reason anyone even noticed or bothered to submit it here is the fact that it is Apple.

  • by mrops (927562) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @04:06PM (#32606136)

    Think Programming instead of IC design.

    These days design of chips like A4 is more like programming than IC design of the 80s.

    - Import the ARM Cortex 8 library, customized with configuration
    - import other libraries e.g. memory controller, graphics chip etc
    - write code to bind them together
    compile... oops.. I mean send to foundry. Get back A4 or your Snapdragon.

  • by peppepz (1311345) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @04:17PM (#32606236)
    ARM processors don't come pre-packaged. You license the core design, then you have to do everything else is needed to turn that into a physical chip. That's what *every SOC manufacturer* who uses an ARM chip does. Thus every ARM-based chip out in the wild is "different from any other chip". And we should get a slashdot story for each one of them.
  • by Cornelius the Great (555189) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @04:47PM (#32606550)

    Well since we are being pedantic, the iPhone 4 (and 3Gs for that matter) has full support for a variety of 4G networks being deployed, basically LTE.

    AT&T is supposedly doing some trials next year and rolling out 4G in 2011.

    That is not correct. The current iPhone implementations, including iPhone 4, only support existing GSM networks (GPRS, EDGE, HSPA). LTE would require new hardware.

    Verizon will be the first to adopt LTE in the US (by the end of this year), and hopes to have the first LTE handsets available by mid-2011. AT&T's LTE network will come later.

  • by mdwh2 (535323) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @06:01PM (#32607346) Journal

    It's really more like Apple is sprouting up a bunch of ARM devices and sadly, not opening them as much as any given x86 system.

    Note that ARM is widely used on mobile computing platforms in general, of which Apple are just one little fish in a big sea; for example, ARM CPUs are used in about 98% of the more than one billion phones shipped a year. They've shipped more than 15 billion proessors in total.

    And thankfully, these devices are far more open than Apple's :) (Well, to be fair, I dislike that phone platforms in general still tend to be less open than Windows or Linux, but at least nowhere near as locked down as Apple's feature phones.)

  • by mdwh2 (535323) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @06:07PM (#32607436) Journal

    So investors are caught up in the hype and RDF as much as the media or anyone else right now...

    But yes - maybe now people can drop the myth that Apple are a "little company": "Look how amazing it is that Apple have done so well, managing a whole 5% of the phone market in just 3 years" they cry, as if Apple weren't some billion dollar company that can easily enter any market it wants. Or "Isn't it amazing that Apple can create a device for me to access the Internet" as if this was anything special in 2007 onwards; or "Let's all root for the small guys, against those nasty big companies like Intel and Microsoft"...

    If your implication is that the Apple A4 is going to outdo Intel x86 just because of market cap, I don't think so. Intel x86 is well established on the desktop (as well as laptops and netbooks), and isn't going anywhere, especially with the dominance of Windows. And anyhow, the A4 is based on ARM anyway, so it's they who ultimately get the credit for owning the embedded/portable market.

  • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @07:52PM (#32608334) Journal
    This PDF [ubmtechinsights.com] has photographs of the S5PC110A01 and A4. It's clear that, aside from the Cortex A8, they don't share much in common. The S5PC110A01 is 9mm^2 bigger, so you can tell that they aren't the same chip just from the size of the die, but the Cortex A8 is not even in the same location on both. They both use the A8, but so does the OMAP3500-series, like the one found in the N900 - it's pretty much the standard core for the current generation of handhelds.
  • by dgatwood (11270) on Friday June 18, 2010 @03:10AM (#32610430) Journal

    I'd be very surprised to see Apple computers based around processors that are "Apple" in anything more than name and, possibly, specific arrangement of cookie-cutter functional units around a licensed ARM or x86 core.

    Depends on what you mean by "licensed core". If you look at the history of Apple, you'll see a clear pattern: Apple licenses other people's cores or buys their chips at the end of the design process, but is quite frequently involved in designing those cores to begin with.

    Let's review:

    • Late 1980s: Apple works with VLSI Technology and Acorn to design the ARM6.
    • 1991-2006: Apple works with IBM and Motorola (later Freescale) to design the PowerPC processor family.
    • Late 2000s: Apple buys PA Semi, a fabless processor manufacturer.

    Apple has a long history of working with chip vendors and adding significant functionality to their designs. Sure, those bits end up in other companies' products, but there's Apple IP in an awful lot of CPUs out there, including many of the CPUs that have appeared in Apple products over the years....

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