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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 Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 17, 2010 @01:47PM (#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 @01:53PM (#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.

  • Hubris. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by RightSaidFred99 (874576) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @01:57PM (#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.

  • 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.

  • by wandazulu (265281) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:12PM (#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.

  • Re:Needed for TPM? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Zelgadiss (213127) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:13PM (#32604790)

    Don't know if media companies will want a company like Apple to be the one in control of the said platform.

    They already have a taste of it via itunes.

  • by Lunix Nutcase (1092239) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:17PM (#32604844)

    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?

    Because Apple isn't responsible for the salaries of Foxconn employees? And why do you single out Apple in contrast to the dozens of other huge companies that contract with Foxconn like Microsoft, Logitech, Intel, Cisco, Dell, Nokia, HP, or Sony?

  • Re:Hubris. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Lunix Nutcase (1092239) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:22PM (#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 Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:24PM (#32604934)

    we've always had different names for different products in the same family.

    Intel x86 and Atom are the same x86 family

    Arm and A4 are in the same Arm family

    Cell is a powerpc core with added cores for "multimedia processing"

  • by Cochonou (576531) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:27PM (#32604966) Homepage
    Well, if it's off-the-shelf, where can I procure it ?
    This SoC is no more off-the-shelf that any ASIC, even if built from already-designed IP blocks.
  • Re:Hubris. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by droopycom (470921) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:31PM (#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.

  • by cowscows (103644) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:44PM (#32605196) Journal

    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.

  • by SuperKendall (25149) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:45PM (#32605214)

    If Apple is so innocent, why do you even have to mention the names of the other companies???

    If Apple is so guilty, then why NOT mention those other companies?

    You have to answer that first before you are allowed any more paranoid rants. You are trying to defect all ills of the world to fall upon Apple's shoulders. Has any other company but Apple in fact even offered a bonus to workers who work on the products the companies are having produced there?

    Even if all of them are evil, Apple is less so if only because of that one aspect. Yet, you single Apple out - so obviously you have some other motive in mind rather than Foxconn worker well being. It's pretty sick to take advantage of Chinese suicides to further your own holy crusade against Apple (and Apple only).

  • by Ixokai (443555) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:48PM (#32605248)

    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?

    Uhh, they did -- http://www.electronista.com/articles/10/05/31/said.to.stem.from.internal.investigation/

    Further... You know that Foxconn plant isn't like, an Apple exclusive manufacturer don't you? Dell, HP, Playstations, Wii's, Xbox, the Kindle... phones by plenty of other people, and basically practically anything electronic.

    But Apple's greedy and is running the sweatshop and should direct a few bucks to the poor guys (... which they did, a 30% raise). No one else does. Bad, evil, greedy Apple does.

    The whole suicide thing is way overplayed in the media. Its a sweatshop and can't have anything to do with the fact that Foxconn was paying silly amounts of compensation to families when this happened (a year's salary!), practically giving incentive in a society with very different social values then western ones (look up the differences between a shame and a guilt-based society: they're the former, we're the latter). And it can't be anything like a suicide chain which has happened more then once in this country.

    No, It's Apple's fault.

  • by SuperKendall (25149) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:53PM (#32605312)

    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 within the limits of what Apple can do given the companies they have acquired. There's no reason to think they are overreaching in abilities here.

    Over time they may do more actual design, but it makes perfect sense to start down that road now that they have the capital given the direction they are headed.

  • by Darinbob (1142669) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @03:18PM (#32605602)
    Plenty of companies do this. They do it sometimes without being experts in processor design, by having others help them customize off the shelf processors. They're just taking an ARM core, and then adding stuff on the periphery. They're not changing the core itself; not optimizing the pipelines, not adding instructions, etc. It's not even to the level of re-design.

    Processors chips are basically at the stage now where you can customize them. This is analogous to me going to a store and building my own PC from off-the-shelf boards and parts; or maybe going to a web site and choosing which components I want in my PC.

    This article is of interest in terms of the detective work and reverse engineering though. But it seems uninteresting in terms of it being about Apple.
  • 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?
  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @03:39PM (#32605832) 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.

    Apple has historically and to the present day, shown considerable distaste for entering low margin markets(with occasional exceptions in the service of making their high margin gear more attractive: the original "airport", for instance, was actually cheaper than the Lucent gear that it was a rebadge of; but it was sold to give the high-margin macs the "wireless" feature comparatively cheaply and easily, for the user). Chips, unless you are the top dog(like Intel, who after their rather embarrassing P4 vs. A64 era, are pretty firmly back on top of the x86 world) or a huge supplier of licensed blocks(like ARM), are a cutthroat business. The poor bastards churning out commodity Flash or DRAM seem to be losing money and/or going out of business all the time.

    Apple might well(and, indeed, already have), commission a big stack of semi-custom chips, with their own preferred core and functional groups, and have somebody fab it, and(with an order of that size) whoever is contracted to package it will be happy to stamp whatever Apple wants on the casing. However, actually going into chip design/fabrication in a serious way would be entering a seriously cutthroat market to no obvious advantage.

    On the x86 side, Intel has already demonstrated a willingness to give Apple some months of exclusivity and press hype for their newest gear(Xeons in the mac pros, small-package core2s in the macbook air), presumably in exchange for better margins than dell and HP's knife-fight-in-a-telephone-booth offers. As long as Intel is willing to do the hard, capital intensive, work of running cutting edge fabs, and provide their fanciest silicon at modest per-unit cost, with an exclusivity period, what would Apple have to gain?

    On the ARM side, the world is crawling with vendors who have their own, slightly different, spins of ARM core + functional units. The barrier to entry to having your own isn't exactly huge; but neither are the margins or differentiation. The fact that Apple also has one, to suit their particular embedded devices, isn't surprising; but it isn't a huge strategic thing. All the assorted ARM licensees of a particular ARM generation are pretty similar.
  • by BlueStraggler (765543) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @03:46PM (#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.
  • It's all marketing (Score:4, Insightful)

    by wiredlogic (135348) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @03:54PM (#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.

  • On the ARM side, the world is crawling with vendors who have their own, slightly different, spins of ARM core + functional units. The barrier to entry to having your own isn't exactly huge; but neither are the margins or differentiation. The fact that Apple also has one, to suit their particular embedded devices, isn't surprising; but it isn't a huge strategic thing. All the assorted ARM licensees of a particular ARM generation are pretty similar.

    Except, Apple's got a microarchitecture license. They haven't really used it much, aince the A4 is a modified Cortex A8, but the other licensees are Marvell (who got it from Intel, who got it from Compaq, who got it from DEC...), and Qualcomm (for the Snapdragon).

    Next, Apple acquires Intrinsity, who up to then had been working with Samsung (who used to provide the processors for Apple) to modify the Cortex A8 core to be faster or more power efficient.

    Apple's bought a lot of VLSI talent. They have PA Semi, who are well known at making very low power PowerPC chips, and Intrinsity, who are great at modifying existing designs. PA Semi may be working on a brand new ARM-compatible chip, while Intrinsity works on improving the A8/A9/etc, so Apple has a range of options for processors. Intrinsity gets them a processor "now" (since it's modified A8 plus peripherals), while PA Semi works on a future processor.

    The A4 isn't interesting at all. The next gen chips, though, are. And Apple is poised to be a gadget provider that makes their own processors. If PA Semi + Intrinsity comes up with a super high speed design or super lower power design, it's all Apple's IP and technology, and Apple doesn't have to share wirh anyone else.

  • by joh (27088) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @07:49PM (#32608322)

    Because Apple isn't responsible for the salaries of Foxconn employees?

    Apple IS responsible, because they know the workers' conditions, and still accept to make business with their direct employers. Those workers work FOR Apple, it doesn't matter how long the control chain between Apple and them is.

    Interestingly, among all the companies using that factory (Dell, HP, Nokia, ...) Apple is the only one that has insisted in reviews and reports about the conditions even before this suicide row.

    And please don't stop there. 99% of the other chinese crap (not limited to electronics) you buy has been manufactured under conditions that are probably much, much worse than those at Foxconn.

    Apple has become a scapegoat of certain people and I totally hate that. Not because I love Apple so much, but because it lets others get away who are often much worse.

  • by mgblst (80109) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @09:38PM (#32608926) Homepage

    I hope you have never shopped at a BP petrol station, since then YOU are responsible for the oil spill, it doesn't matter how long the control chain between BP and you is.

  • by toQDuj (806112) on Friday June 18, 2010 @12:55AM (#32609932) Homepage Journal

    Except that it is an A8.

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