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Apple’s A4 chip could be Quadcore – Cortex A9 based

Apple’s A4 chip is possibly more interesting than the iPad itself. In this article we explain a bit why

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Like many others yesterday’s iPad announcement really had two exciting elements: the new iPad and the Apple-designed main processor, the A4, inside it. In some ways the A4 is a bit more exciting but I am sure Mr. Jobs doesn’t want us to see it that way. But we do, and for good reason: Apple has designed its first important main CPU and that is just plain exciting.

The A4

It is exciting for a couple of key reasons. Firstly, Apple bought PA Semiconductor a few years back and that group consisted of a “dream-team” of microprocessor designers. If you follow the PA Semi tag at the bottom of this story you can find some stories that will allow you to learn the details of PA Semi and who the group was. So with chip “dream team” in hand what would Apple do with that expertise? The obvious answer is create amazing processors that distinguish things like the iPad from rival products.  So the A4 is exciting because it is the first “child” from the PS Semi team.

The second reason it is exciting is because this first chip begs the question: what other future custom Apple chips are in the works? And what products may they go in? In particular, will the A4 go into the next version of the iPhone itself?

You see when you buy a “dream team,” then hide them away and come out with secret chips like the A4 and share absolutely no detail about its inner workings you create amazing drama. Period.

Sorry Steve if we are so darn excited about the A4 that we don’t seem to be focused solely on the iPad itself…but what do you expect?

The Secrecy

I actually applaud Apple for keeping the A4 so secret, even though it is personally killing me not to know the details. It’s just another fork of interest that will drive the media’s vectors back in the direction of the new iPad. Again, secrecy scores a point for Apple.

However, maybe the secrecy is because the A4 isn’t so custom after all? Perhaps it is simply an ARM Cortex A9-based multicore chip that happens to be quadcore. Does that sounds plausible? It does to me after reading up on ARM’s latest and greatest.

Apple has a somewhat unique and premium-class license with ARM which came by way of its PA Semi acquisition. Basically they can highly manipulate ARM chip architectures rather than simply package custom chips around ARM chip architectural modules. I suspect given the time Apple has had PA Semi that this first A4 chip is not as customized as Apple could eventually make it. But here are some basics that might exist in the A4 now:

A4 Possible and Known Internals:

  • ARM Cortex A9-based architecture, modified by Apple
  • Quadcore (?)
  • 1 Ghz main frequency
  • 2 MB L2 Cache
  • 45 nanometer process
  • 300 milliwatt max power use
  • ARM NEON Processing Media Engine (?)

That’s the shortlist. Some of this we know and some of this we may not know for quite some time. You can see some pictures in this article from yesterday. Check them out, one is of the ARM Cortex A9 architecture. Write us or comment below. We’d appreciate your thoughts.

Reader Comments

  1. Posted by:
    Jeremiad
    January 28, 2010 06:54 pm EST

    The lack of virtually any solid facts out of Apple about the A4 is really killing me too! With that in mind, virtually everything on the web right now about it is speculation, some much more reasonable that others.

    ARM NEON Processing Media Engine? Yes, of course! It’s a required component of the ARM v7 A & R architectures, and the iPhone 3GS already has it by virtue of it’s Cortex A8 processor.

    2MB of cache under 300 mW: I don’t develop ICs, but that sounds rather optimistic to me. Cache RAM is very power hungry. I frankly would be surprised if the A4 has more than 64 KB L1 and 256 KB L2. If it’s really a quad-core, those figures might get doubled.

    Which brings me to speculation about the chip having four cores. Die space is not an issue, since the A9 core is tiny compared to even the Intel Atom. However, you have to feed all four of those cores with data or they’re just wasting space. To increase memory bandwidth, you’ve got to increase cache size and use a faster memory interface, another power hungry part of the system. I definitely think quad-core iPods, iPhones, and iPads will eventually arrive, but it’s probably too soon. (I hope to be wrong about this!)

    Apple has a lot of financial incentive to use the same chip across it’s entire line of mobile consumer electronics, so I expect the A4 is already designed to work in the iPod and iPhone. I don’t expect a hot-rod; I expect something more like a Prius.

    Patently Apple spotting an interesting patent regarding CPUs: US patent application 20080288759 describes a method for detecting memory hazards (cache misses) after speculative execution of code. The method described to do this is novel (disclaimer: I am not an expert in the field) in that it combines minimal hardware changes and a smart compiler. This would allow Apple to use a smaller cache to obtain the same performance while reducing both power consumption and cost.

    Of course, I was also hoping that Apple’s subtractive display patent (7,586,472) would make it into the tablet, but no such luck. Such a display should be able to use ambient light and thus cut backlight power—surely the largest single power draw of the iPad.

    I suppose I’ll just have to wait until the iPad is released before learning anything more for certain about the A4.

  2. What a very good post. Lots of good stuff here. I am not sure if Apple (PA Semi’s) ARM architecture license gives them enough leeway to eliminate required components like the NEON Processing Media Engine or not. I find it odd that Apple does not list graphics capabilities for the iPad in any way, shape or form. My guess is it has NEON PME.

    According to the ARM website on Cortex A9 the L2 Cache Controller can provide access up to 2 MB (up to!) in high frequency designs (presumably the A4 is a high-frequency design).
    http://www.arm.com/products/CPUs/ARMCortex-A9_MPCore.html

    I read in another post that the ARM Cortex A9 aimed at smartphones had a power footprint targeted at 300 mW…the limit imposed by cell phone manufacturers on chip makers. It was a direct quote from an ARM product manager.

    The patent application description above sounds pretty interesting. Apparently smartphones with quadcores will be aplenty by year end…so this is the year for quadcore smartphones. I just can’t figure out what else the “4” can mean in Apple’s A4 designation. Have any ideas other than “quad”??

  3. Posted by:
    Jeremiad
    January 29, 2010 12:12 pm EST

    Well, A4 could just mean 4th generation Apple SoC. A1 would be for the original iPhone, A2 for the 3G, A3 for the 3GS, and A4 for the iPad and future iPhones. Apple has in the past used the monikers G4, G4, and G5 for CPUs that already had other names.

    Given that Apple and ARM go way back, I’m sure Apple could have acquired an architecture license. ARM does not require that this be public knowledge, and I’m sure that Apple would want to have as much control as possible over any hardware project they undertake.

    The Samsung S5PC100 widely reported to be in the iPhone 3GS includes a Cortex A8 with NEON, and I don’t see why Apple wouldn’t use it. Dropping it now doesn’t make sense to me. Perhaps they came up with a better vector processor, but I think it would have to remain compatible.

    The following press release on ARM’s website indicates that a single A9 core (with L1 cache) built on TSMC’s low-power, 40 nm process requires just 250 mW: http://www.arm.com/news/25922.html. Since the size of an L2 cache (if any) is not specified, I don’t see how a power figure could be quoted as a single number and not as a range.

    We may be overestimating the A4’s power efficiency. Supposing it is a quad-core design with 1 MB total L2 cache, graphic acceleration, and other co-processors, then a peak power consumption under 4 W should be possible at 1 GHz. Typical power consumption, however, could be vastly lower. Given the iPad’s huge 25 Whr battery and large, heat conducting aluminum case, short periods of high power draw may be acceptable (but not acceptable for an iPhone).

    Yet the lure of multiple cores from a power perspective is clear: four cores running at 1/2 frequency use only 1/2 the power of two cores running at full speed. In other words, a quad-core chip running at 1 GHz would be as powerful as a dual-core running at 2 GHz but use only half the power. (SMP’s are hard to program, but fortunately Apple’s working on that…) Pages 22 and 27 among others of this PDF (http://www.jp.arm.com/event/pdf/forum2008/t1-1.pdf) include some interesting slides regarding multiple cores and power consumption.

    So, I’m still hoping for a quad-core chip with lots of engineering surprises that accomplished the feat, but there is scant evidence so far to indicate this.

  4. […] Apple's A4 chip could be Quadcore – Cortex A9 based | ArchitoshThe second reason it is exciting is because this first chip begs the question: what other future custom Apple chips are in the works? And what products may they go in? In particular, will the A4 go into the next version of the iPhone … Read more […]

  5. While the quote to the story above is good (http://www.brightsideofnews.com/news/2010/1/27/apple-a4-soc-unveiled—its-an-arm-cpu-and-the-gpu!.aspx )

    It isn’t saying anything more really than what we stated previous.

    “However, maybe the secrecy is because the A4 isn’t so custom after all? Perhaps it is simply an ARM Cortex A9-based multicore chip that happens to be quadcore. Does that sounds plausible? It does to me after reading up on ARM’s latest and greatest.”

    BSN admits it only got confirmation that Apple is a “member of the family” of ARM that is. That says nothing really. “We were told that ARM licensed its CPU and GPU technology to Apple.” Actually, PA Semi had the broadest architectural license from ARM prior to Apple acquiring them.

  6. Jeremiad,

    Some comments back to you. Yes, I don’t see why NEON would not be utilized. As for the vector processing unit option? Isn’t this one of PA Semi’s strengths? Your comments about cores and power usage are all very insightful and shade this “wonderlust” to find and discover the true details of the A4 all the more fun. Thanks for the great feedback!

  7. […] […]

  8. Posted by:
    Jeremiad
    February 3, 2010 12:38 am EST

    Anthony,

    First off, I was wrong when I wrote that the NEON unit is required; it is in fact optional. I regret this error.

    Apple assembled an all-star team to produce the A4 chip. The Alpha and StongARM both captured my imagination back in the early 90’s, and the engineer who led their designs, Dan Dobberpuhl, apparently works for Apple now. If anyone could get a quad-core processor shoe-horned into the iPad, it would be his team. Here are a couple relevant articles:

    “Dan Dobberpuhl is responsible for the design of many high-performance microprocessors, including the PDP-11, uVax, Alpha, and StrongARM.” — http://queue.acm.org/detail.cfm?id=957732

    “Apple is working on something big. But it’s too soon to know what, exactly, Steve Jobs & Co. are doing. But it is not too early to know who is doing it. And that, ultimately, may be more important.” — http://www.forbes.com/2009/04/28/apple-steve-jobs-technology-enterprise-tech-apple.html

  9. […] Probably a faster, more energy-efficient model. If the current A4 is really 4-core, as is rumoured, the number of cores may even increase, as a way to increase power without raising the temperature […]

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