November 15th, 2014 ~ by admin

Apple A8X Processor: What does an X get you?

Anandtech has an excellent article on the new Apple A8X processor that powers the iPad Air 2.  This is an interesting processor for Apple, but perhaps more interesting is its use, and the reasoning for it.  Like the A5X and A6X before it (there was no A7X) it is an upgrade/enhancement from the A8 it is based on.  In the A5X the CPU was moved from a single core to a dual core and the GPU was increased from a dual core PowerVR SGX543MP2 to a quad-core PowerVR SGX543MP4.  The A6X kept the same dual core CPU design as the A6 but went from a tri-core SGX543MP3 to a quad core SGX554MP4.  Clock speeds were increased in the A5X and A6X over the A5 and A6 respectively.

The A8X continues on this track.  The A8X adds a third CPU core, and doubles the GX6450 GPU cores to 8.  This is interesting as Imagination Technologies (whom the GPUs are licensed from) doesn’t officially support or provide an octa-core GPU.  Apple;s license with Imagination clearly allows customization though.  This is similar to the ARM Architecture license that they have.  They are not restricted to off the shelf ARM, or Imagination cores, they have free reign to design/customize the CPU and GPU cores.  This type of licensing is more expensive, but it allows much greater flexibility.

This brings us to the why.  The A8X is the processor the the newly released iPad Air 2, the previous iPad air ran an A7, which wasn’t a particularly bad processor.  The iPad Air 2 has basically the same spec’s as the previous model, importantly the screen resolution is the same and no significantly processor intense features were added.

When Apple moved from the iPad 2 to the iPad (third gen) they doubled the pixel density, so it made sense for the A5X to have additional CPU and GPU cores to handle the significantly increased amount of processing for that screen. Moving from the A7 to the A8 in the iPad Air 2 would make clear sense from a battery life point of view as well, the new Air has a much smaller batter so battery life must be enhanced, which is something Apple worked very hard on with the A8.  Moving to the A8X, as well as doubling the RAM though doesn’t tell us that Apple was only concerned about battery life (though surely the A8X can turn on/off cores as needed).  Apple clearly felt that the iPad needed a significant performance boost as well, and by all reports the Air 2 is stunningly fast.

It does beg the question though? What else may Apple have in store for such a powerful SoC?

September 27th, 2014 ~ by admin

Apple A8 Processor: A smaller, faster A7

Anandtech and Chipworks deconstructed an Apple A8 processor, the hear of the new iPhone 6.  By their analysis it is not a radical departure from the A7.  It includes a slightly upgrade, but still quad-core, GPU, and an enhanced dual core ARM processor.  The focus here is clearly on battery performance rather then sheer speed.  Perhaps most interesting is the move from Samsung’s 28nm process to TSMC’s 20nm process (Being made by TSMC will hopefully put to rest the rumors of an Apple/Intel tie up once and for all.).  This results in lower power, a smaller die area, and, assuming yields are on par, a lower cost per chip.  Clock speed appears to be close to the same as the A7 at around 1.3GHz, with most performance improvements being architectural. It would appear to be the smallest improvement in the Apple A series, certainly since the A4->A5.

Considering the incremental improvement from the A7, one can only imagine what Apple has in mind for the A9 which is no doubt well under development.

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Museum News

July 26th, 2013 ~ by admin

Apple G3 Prototype: The Goleta and IBM Arthur Processor

IBM Arthur Processor - 1997

IBM Arthur Processor – 1997

By 1997 the PowerPC 604e was getting a bit dated.  Apple needed an updated faster processor for their new computers and IBM and Motorola needed a new processor to sell to Apple.  The PowerPC 750 was an evolution of the 604e and became the core of Apple’s various G3 systems.

In early 1997 Apple , IBM, and Motorola (together known as the AIM Alliance) were working on what would become the PowerPC 750.  It’s code name? The Arthur.  Apparently someone at IBM or Motorola had a liking for Sherlock Holmes as the 745 was codenamed Conan and the 755 Doyle, after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writer of Sherlock Holmes.  This particular part is date coded R20003PAP which means it was made in mid-May of 1997, 6 months before the G3 and PowerPC 750 were officially released.

The card the Arthur processor (hand labeled 300Mhz) resides on is an Apple Prototype known as the Goleta.  The Goleta was one of the first Apple G3 products.   It was to be used in the PowerMac 9700 aka the PowerExpress which was to be a 6 slot G3 PowerMac running at 275MHz.

Apple Goleta G3 Prototype

Apple Goleta G3 Prototype – Click here to see the full card.

It never made it past the prototype stage.  The card is labeled as serial #014 making it a very early prototype, though how many total were made is not known.  The card may have been used at Apple for testing other deigns as well and certainly was a test bench for the new 750 PowerPC Processor.  This was a chaotic time for Apple as they were struggling to pull out of near bankruptcy.  Steve Jobs had only just returned to the company and radically changed what Apple was doing, and what they were not doing (making money).

May 25th, 2013 ~ by admin

Another Apple 1 Computer, Another $671,400

Apple 1 computers, one of the first personal computers, were introduced in 1976. Now 37 years old they are setting records for auction sales.  In September 2010 one fetched over $20,000 on eBay.  A few months later one with the original box and papers cleared $200,000.  And this week an auction house in Germany sold one for 516,000 Euros (around $670,000 depending on the exchange rate).  Apparently a refurbished and now working model. this is one of the highest prices ever for a vintage computer.

Who knows, in 30 years the original iPhone 2G may set records for sales, but considering the number built, who knows how many will be around in 2040, or how many will have the original box.

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Just For Fun

October 8th, 2012 ~ by admin

Apple A6 vs Rockchip RK3066: 4 Years vs. 6 weeks of design

The introduction of the iPhone 5 was also the introduction of Apple’s first truly original Application Processor design.  The iPhone 2, 3G and 3GS all featured designs by Samsung.  The iPhone 4 introduced the A4, which was closely based on the Hummingbird Cortex-A8 core developed with Samsung and Intrinsity, again, not a truly Apple design.  The iPhone 4S introduced the A5 (and the A5X used in the iPad 2).  The A5 is based on the ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore, a standard ARM design, albeit with many added features, but architecturally, the processor is not original, just customized.

ARM provides cores designs for use by developers, such as the Cortex-A9, A8, etc.  These are complete designs of processors that you can drop into your system design as a block, add your own functions, such as a graphics system, audio processing, image handling, radio control, etc and you have your processor.  This is the way many processor vendors go about things.  They do not have to spend the time and effort to design a processor core, just pick one that meets their needs (power budget, speed, die area) and add any peripherals   Many of these peripherals are also licensed as Intellectual Property (IP) blocks making building a processor in some ways similar to construction with Legos.  This is not to say that this is easy, or the wrong way to go about things, it is in fact the only way to get a design to market in a matter of weeks, rather then years.  It allows for a wide product portfolio that can meet many customers needs.  The blocks are often offered for a specific process, so not only can you purchase a license to a Cortex-A9 MPCore, you can purchase one that is hardware ready for a TSMC 32nm High-k Metal Gate process, or a 28nm Global Foundries process.  This greatly reduces the amount of work needed to make a design work with a chosen process. This is what ARM calls the Processor Foundry Program.

Read More »

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Research

September 6th, 2012 ~ by admin

Apple iPhone Update: Whats changed since the iPhone 4

Back in 2010 we did a write up on the many processors in each iPhone for each version through the iPhone 4.  Since then Apple has released the iPhone 4 (CDMA) and the mid-cycle refresh iPhone 4S.  Seeing as the iPhone 5 should be released on September 12th here is a quick update to bring our table up to date.

CPUs by function and generation of iPhone:

Function 2G 3G 3GS 4 4-CDMA 4S
App Processor Samsung S3C6400 400-412MHz ARM1176JZ Samsung S3C6400 400-412MHz ARM1176JZ Samsung S5PC100 600MHZ ARM Cortex A8 Apple A4 800MHz ARM Cortex A8 Apple A4 800MHz ARM Cortex A8 Apple A5 900Mhz Dual core ARM Cortex-A9
Baseband S-GOLD2 ARM926EJ-S <200MHz Infineon X-Gold 608 ARM926 312MHz + ARM7TDMI-S Infineon X-Gold 608 ARM926 312MHz + ARM7TDMI-S X-Gold 618 ARM1176 416MHz Qualcomm MDM6600 ARM1136JS 512MHz Qualcomm MDM6610 ARM1136JS 512MHz
GPS NA Infineon HammerHead II Infineon  HammerHead II BCM4750 (no CPU core) see above see above
Bluetooth BlueCore XA-RISC BlueCore XA-RISC BCM4325 (2 CPU cores) BCM4329 (2 CPU cores) BCM4329 (2 CPU Cores) BCM4330ARM Cortex-M3 + Bluetooth CPU
Wifi Marvell 88W8686 Feroceon ARMv5 128MHz Marvell 88W8686 Feroceon ARMv5 128MHz see above see above see above see above
TouchScreen Multi-chip BCM5974 TI TI TI TI
OS Nucleus by Mentor Graphics Nucleus Nucleus ThreadX by ExpressLogic REX by Qualcomm REX by Qualcomm
Total Cores 5 7 7 5 5 6

Apple iPhone 4 CDMA

The CDMA version of the iPhone 4 switched from an Infineon X-Gold baseband to a Qualcomm MDM6600 running a 512MHz ARM1136JS core.  Interestingly this baseband supports GSM but due to antenna issues it is not implemented here. The Qualcomm Gobi, as it is known, also has integrated GPS, removing the need for the old Broadcom BCM4750.  This sets the stage for the iPhone 4S.

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September 6th, 2012 ~ by admin

Intel vs. The World – The Infamous ‘338 Patent

A Brief History

Long before the mess of Apple vs. Samsung (and seemingly everyone else), there was another famous company, with a patent in hand, that it seemed everyone was violating.  The issue of Intellectual Property (IP), and its associated patents has long been an issue in the technology business, and certainly in the business of CPU’s.  There are many many functions inside a CPU, different structures for handling instructions, memory access, cache algorithms, branch prediction etc.  All of these are unique, intellectual property.  It doesn’t matter if you implement them with a slightly different transistor structure, as long as the end product is relatively the same, there is the risk of violating a patent.  Patents are tricky things, and litigating them can be very risky.  You must balance the desire to keep competition from violating your IP, but at the same time minimize the risk that your patent is declared invalid.  This is why most cases end up in an out of court settlement, usually via arbitration.  Actual patent jury trials are fairly rare, as they are very expensive and very risky to all parties involved

Infringing?

In the early days (1970’s and early 1980’s) there was routine and widespread cross licensing in the industry.  Many companies didn’t have the fab capacity to reliably meet demand (IBM wouldn’t purchase a device unless it was made by at least 2 companies for this very reason) so they would contract with other manufacturers to make their design.  Having other companies manufacture your design, or compatible parts, also increased the market share of your architecture (8086, 68k etc).  For years AMD made and licensed most everything Intel made, AMD also licensed various peripheral chips to Intel (notably the 9511/2 FPU).  As the market grew larger, the competition increased, Intel (and others) began to have enough reliable fab capacity to safely single source devices.  Meanwhile other companies continued to make compatible products, based on previous licensing.  AMD notably made x86 CPU’s that ate into Intel’s market share. In the 1970’s Intel had cross license agreements with AMD, IBM, National, Texas Instruments, Mostek, Siemens, NEC and many others.

Read More »

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Research

May 12th, 2011 ~ by admin

What to do with a $200,000+ Vintage Computer?

A computer befitting of a museum which recently sold at auction for $213,000 was brought back to life at a event at the Polytechnic University in Torino.

$213,000 Apple 1 being programmed vi $2000 Mac Book Pro

The owner, Mark Bogle, President of the clothing company BasicNet, did not want this Apple 1 to sit idle.  instead, infront of an audience of hundred, the Apple 1 was checked with an oscilloscope and a program was fed to it by none other then a Mac Book Pro. Its an amazing feat really, considering its a 35 year old motherboard. One can only imagine the crowds reaction if one of the power filtering caps decided to fail upon boot up. Read more here (all in Italian but Google translate works fine)

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Just For Fun

March 12th, 2011 ~ by admin

Apple A5 Updated Info

Now the UBM Techinsights and iFixIt have completed their teardowns of the iPad 2, and benchmarks have been run we now know that the A5 is in fact a dual core, made by Samsung, and clocked at around 900MHz.  It also includes the PowerVR 543 dual core GPU as we suspected in our previous post.

Apple A5 Processor

Also we now have an actual image of the chip, rather then the photoshopped one Apple used in their presentation.

Posted in:
Processor News

March 2nd, 2011 ~ by admin

The iPad 2: Apple joins the Dual-core crowd.

Apple A5 - Actually a Photoshop'd A4

Today Apple announced the iPad 2, which unless you are living in a cave, you likely have heard about more then you wish already.  The iPad 2 debuts the next evolution in Apples own ARM processor.  The A4 (which was a single core 1GHz class ARM Cortex-A8 made by Samsung) is out, and a dual core replacement is in.  Details are thin until a proper tear down is done, but it is most likely a 1GHz dual core ARM Cortex-A9 with a dual core PowerVR 543 replacing the single core PowerVR 535.  It is most likely fab’d again by Samsung.  Apple’s press shot during their presentation is NOT an A5, the PR folks at Apple simply Photoshopped the original press shot of the A4 from last year. Note the date codes on the chip are 0939 and 0940 (sine their is 2 dies in it), which is late 2009.

Apple also made the somewhat deceptive remark that the iPad 2 is the first dual core tablet to ship ‘in volume.’  HP’s Touchpad runs a dual core Snapdragon and is shipping ‘soon.’  LG is shipping their tablet this month with a very capable Tegra 2, and Samsung will follow with the Galaxy Tab 10.1, also Tegra 2 powered.  RIM’s Playbook which is in beta, used a TI OMAP 4430 dual core Cortex-A9.  This puts Apple right in the mix of the dual core frenzy that will playout this year.

Apple A4 Press shot, notice the identical markings to the A5

We’ll update the photo as soon as someone (likely the folks at iFixIt) get and tear one down.

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Posted in:
Processor News