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Apple A4 SOC unveiled – It’s an ARM CPU and GPU




Apple today didn’t introduce just a new product, but rather an entrance into the world of fabless semiconductors with their A4 CPU, which is not a CPU at all. Meet the A4.

During the GlobalFoundries event in Las Vegas, we spoke with Warren East, CEO of ARM. We discussed many trends in the industry and also learned about the new member of the family, which we can now reveal as the Apple Inc. This wasn’t as surprising, given the previous history between PA Semi and ARM [PA Semi founder Dan Dobberpuhl was a lead designer at Digital Equipment Corporation on Alpha and StrongARM processors].

Getting back to Apple A4, Steve Jobs incorrectly addressed Apple A4 as a CPU. We’re not sure was this to keep the mainstream press enthused, but A4 is not a CPU. Or we should say, it’s not just a CPU. Nor did PA Semi/Apple had anything to do with the creation of the CPU component.

A4 is a System-on-a-Chip, or SOC, that integrates the main processor [ARM Cortex-A9, identical to ones used in nVidia Tegra and Qualcomm Snapdragon] with graphics silicon [ARM Mali GPU], and other functions like the memory controller on one piece of silicon – not unlike what Intel is trying to achieve with its future “Moorestown” Atom processor that debuted inside LG’s Smartphone.

The A in A4 obviously stands for Apple

And the difference between the Samsung processor inside the iPhone 3Gs and A4 is the clockspeed and the core type. A4 runs at 1GHz while the chip on iPhone 3Gs works clocked to 0,6GHz. This is one of main reasons why iPad can deliver a lively interface compared to stale iPhone one.

So yes, PA Semi/Apple chip is actually mostly ARM IP. This is quite a logical step to do, given that this is first new piece of silicon that came from PA Semi after the acquisition in April 2008. We’ll see if future iterations will have more Apple IP than ARMs, but somehow we doubt it. ARM is the pervasive force in the world of mobile chips, as witnessed by many new players on the market. We could even conclude that Apple logically followed what nVidia had done with their own SoC, Tegra, followed Qualcomm with their Snapdragon, Samsung with their own Cortex-A9 core at 1GHz. BTW, as a small comment – isn’t it interesting how everybody is clocking the A9 core to 1GHz [nVidia, Qualcomm, Samsung, Texas Instruments]? This is due to the thermal sweetspot of the core, given that the maximum achievable clock of 1.3 GHz comes with a significant thermal penalty.

Similar SOC chip architecture is already used in the iPhone and other smartphones, such as Google’s Nexus One and Motorola’s Droid, as well as the upcoming tablets and smartbook/netbooks such as the ICD Vega and Ultra or Lenovo’s Skybook.

During the Apple event in San Francisco – the A4 was described as “the most advanced chip” Apple has done yet. While fast, it’s also good at managing the power, thanks to advanced process manufacturing at Samsung. BTW, do expect that GlobalFoundries just may bag Apple as a customer due to their industrial lead on 28nm and next-generation ARM processors. Remember where you read that first.

“The A4 chip is so power efficient that it helps iPad get up to 10 hours of battery life,” according to Apple’s venerable CEO, Mr. Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs also called iPad the “best [Web] browsing experience you’ve ever had. A whole Web page right in front of you that you can manipulate with your fingers. Way better than a laptop,” in a video of the event streamed by CNET. That browsing experience will mainly depend on the chip’s ability to handle the background tasks as future iPad user accesses different images or videos. We might ad “true, for as long as you don’t visit flash laden sites.”

For us, it is very interesting to see that EE Times was banned from covering Apple’s launch event due to this story. Then again, given that Steve Jobs controls the information in a manner very similar to Goebbels and punishes the non-biased members of the media, we’re not surprised. EE Times broke many stories in relation to Apple. Here at BSN*, we broke the Mac Tax and now revealed the A4 [A “Mali” GPU and ARM Cortex-A9 CPU core – is that really Apple IP or just a LEGO approach to building an ASIC?], so we don’t expect to be allowed into future Apple events either.

Update #1, January 28, 2010 22:22 GMT/UTC – Following the request for comments, we were incline to update the story. First of all, we do not have concrete information about the number of cores inside the Apple A4 “CPU that it isn’t” i.e. A4 SOC. We were told that the ARM licensed its CPU and GPU technology to Apple. That’s it. Out of that technology, Cortex-A9 is intended for manufacturing in advanced manufacturing process such as 45nm, 40nm, 28nm and so on, similar to the processors that are pushing slot machines, while Cortex-A8 doesn’t have advanced video processing capabilities that Cortex-A9 has. As the time progresses, we’ll know more about what LEGO brick components did Apple use to create the A4. One thing is certain – it uses ARM IP throughout the silicon. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Editor’s note: John Oram from Sacramento and Theo Valich in San Diego contributed to reporting.

Original Author: Daniela Kustre