November 14th, 2010 ~ by admin

The next Generation of Application Processors

Current smartphones have an impressive amount of processing power, and its getting better yet.  Samsung’s new Orion chip has now been spotted running in the wild.  This is one of the first of the next generation of mobile Application Processors.

Nvidia Tegra

In 2008 a smart phone would have a ARM11 class processor running at around 500MHz.  The original iPhone, and the iPhone 3G used one made by Samsung running at 412MHz.  The first Android phone (the Google G1/HTC Dream) used a 528MHz Qualcomm MSM7201A ARM11 processor.  The original Nvidia Tegra CPUs also fall into this class.  We’ll consider this the first generation of the TRUE smart phones as before the iPhone, smart phones were of limited use, and rarely had things likely fully working internet browsing etc.

Qualcomm QSD8250 Snapdragon

The second generation of smart phones significantly increased in processing power.  These are the phones that we use today.  The majority of these run on some version of the ARM Cortex-A8 processor.  These processors are single core 600MHz-1.3GHz devices.  Perhaps the best known are the Apple A4 (Samsung Hummingbird), the Qualcomm Snapdragon (really a custom ARM core called the Scorpion similar to the Cortex-A8 crossed with a Cortex-A9), and the TI OMAP3 series.  Second generation Application Processors also have brought some pretty powerful graphics to phones.  These are integrated onto the same die as the Cortex-A8 and usually are PowerVR (Apple/Samsung and TI), Adreno (Qualcomm from ATI), or Mali (ARMs own GPU) based.

Samsung Orion ARM Cortex-A9 Dev Board

The smart phones of 2011 will begin using the third generation of Application Processors.  These are defined by being based on the ARM Cortex-A9, a faster and more efficient ARM core, as well as typically being a dual core (or better) device.  The TI OMAP4 series fits this description. Qualcomm will continue with the Snapdragon line, but bring it to a dual-core 1.5GHz chip. Apple is an unknown, but will likely up the speed of the A4, or add a core to it.  Samsung;’s Orion is a dual-core 1GHz A9 with a quad core Mali GPU.  It also packs 32KB of L1 cache per core and a full 1MB of L2 cache. Nvidia has the Tegra 250 already, which powers a handful of devices such as the Zune HD.  These processors will handily run full 1080p video, as well as drive external displays.  Your phone will soon be able to play movies on your TV.

ARM Cortex-A15 Eagle

What will the future bring?  ARM Cortex-A15, the Eagle, is a 2.5GHz quad core.  Hopefully it can run without depleting our batteries in an hour.

Posted in:
Processor News

October 26th, 2010 ~ by admin

How The Newton And ARM Saved Apple From Death

Apple Newton 120 - 1994

Cult of Mac recently interviewed John Sculley, the former CEO of Apple.  The interview is long, and very interesting. Sculley presided over Apple during some rather rough times. Steve Jobs in fact still wont talk to Sculley.  This is interesting, as it was Sculley, and the result of a failure that ended up saving Apple, or at least significantly helping them stay in business.

The Apple Newton is known as one of Apple’s biggest failures, however, it ultimately brought relief to the company.  Apple began the Newton project back in 1987.  In search of a processor that could handle the OS, and run on batteries Apple turned to ARM, then a small British company known as Acorn, whose main business was computers and processors for Acorn computers and BBC Micro computers.

Acorn did not have the resources to design the processor Apple needed, so Apple, along with an Italian company called Olivetti took a 47% stake in Acorn.  This cash infusion allowed ARM to develop the processor for the first Newton.  The first Newtons, or MessagePads, as the ones made by Apple were branded, were powered by a 20MHz ARM610 processor.  It was made by VLSI (the first silicon partner for ARM) and called the VY86C610.  They were introduced in 1993 and continued production (in various forms) until 1997. Sharp, Motorola and several other companies also made Newton OS devices, but they enjoyed even less success then Apple’s.

VLSI VY86C610C 20MHz ARM610

In 1997 Apple releases the eMate 300, a classroom targeted laptop system.  It ran the slightly more advanced 25MHz VLSI VY86C710A ARM710A. The styling of the eMate seems to have carried over to the first iBooks with translucent, rounded cases.

The last of the line was the MessagePad 2000 and 2100, both of which were based on an ARM processor made by DEC and Intel called the StrongARM SA-110.  It ran at 162MHz and was at its time one of the highest performing designs for mobile devices available.  Intel later developed the XScale line of processors from it, which they then sold off to Marvell.

In 1998, among diminishing sales, Apple closed down the Newton division.  Some of the original developers of the Newton OS went on to create a company called Pixo.  ARM IPO’d that years as well as ARM Holdings.  Apple sold their stake in ARM for $800 Million.  This influx of cash came at a time when it was desperately needed by Apple, and gave them the time, and money they needed to ‘reset’ and return to profitability in a VERY strong way.

eMate 300 ARM710A - 25MHz

A mere 3 years later, in 2001, Apple ‘changed everything’ with the release of the iPod. The iPod ran on a dual core 90MHz ARM7TDMI processor made by PortalPlayer. It ran an OS designed by Pixo.  Apple subsequently bought Pixo, and likely returned a few old Newton employees to their old desks in doing so. All further iPods, iPhones, and iPads, and now the iTV run on ARM processors. From the lowly 20MHz of the ARM 610 to the 1GHz+ of Apple own A4. The company that Apple helped get started, is now at the foundation of Apples core business.

And it was all because of a ‘failure,’ the Newton.

Posted in:

August 13th, 2010 ~ by admin

The evolution of the Apple iPhone and its many CPU’s – Even within a model

The CPU Shack is pretty much on the trailing edge of technology, we are, after all, a museum.  However, we fancy the new technology as well, and like to crack it open for a look see.  The iPhone, in its 4th generation, is an oasis of CPU’s, sadly we have not been able to get one.  That has now changed….

Anthony, of the iPhone repair company has graciously donated the logic boards from a iPhone 2G, 3G and 3GS. No 4G iPhones yet, but perhaps later.  Now there has been several teardowns of iPhones as they came out, notably by the good folks at iFixIt.  We are going to explore the many CPUs in each model of iPhone, the changes made as they evolved, and something new though not entirely unexpected.

CPUs by function and generation of iPhone:

Function 2G 3G 3GS 4
App Processor Samsung S3C6400 400-412MHz ARM1176JZ Samsung S3C6400 400-412MHz ARM1176JZ Samsung S5PC100 600MHZ ARM Cortex A8 Apple A4 800MHz ARM Cortex A8
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
GPS NA Infineon HammerHead II Infineon  HammerHead II BCM4750 (no CPU core)
Bluetooth BlueCore XA-RISC BlueCore XA-RISC BCM4325 (2 CPU cores) BCM4329 (2 CPU cores)
Wifi Marvell 88W8686 Feroceon ARMv5 128MHz Marvell 88W8686 Feroceon ARMv5 128MHz see above see above
TouchScreen Multi-chip BCM5974 TI TI
OS Nucleus by Mentor Graphics Nucleus Nucleus ThreadX by ExpressLogic
Total Cores 5 7 7 5

Applications Processor vs Baseband Processor

On a device such as the iPhone it is common to have two separate CPUs that run the phone.  The Baseband Processor runs the underlying hardware of the phone (the radios, etc)  This is critical timing wise so it runs its own OS, a Real Time OS capable of dealing with all the complexities in making a phone call or sending data to a cell tower.

The Applications Processor runs just that, the applications, such as iTunes, and iOS itself, this way they are independent of the phone portion. This way if say the new game you installed crashes, it does not effect your phone talking to the tower.

In addition to the applications processor and baseband processor there are several others.  The GPS has its own processor, as does the Bluetooth, and the Wifi as well as the touchscreen. Some of these are pretty simple CPUs, but think back  a few years.  The CPU running JUST the wifi in an iPhone is faster then most desktop computers 15 years ago.






Apple iPhone Logic Boards

Apple iPhone 2G

The Original iPhone and the 3G used the same app. processor, an ARM11 based CPU made by Samsung. It initially ran at 400MHz but via a software update was bumped up to 412MHz.

The biggest change in the 2G to the 3G was the addition of GPS and a change in Baseband.  the 3Gs baseband ran at less then 200MHz, but the 3G runs at up to 312MHz, and included 2 actual ARM processors. add in the CPUs that runs the touch screen, GPS, wifi, and bluetooth and you scan see there is ALOT of processor power in the phone.  7 DIfferent CPUs just to make the phone work.

Apple iPhone 3GS

The 3GS iPhone boosted the speed of the applications processor considerably (and thus it runs iOS4 MUCH better then the 3G).  Again the app processor is made by Samsung, but now its clocked at 600MHz, and based on the ARM Cortex-A8, a faster core then the ARM11 design.  This processor will do 800+MHz but Apple underclocks it for the sake of battery life.  The baseband remains the same, but APple used an integrated chip to handle both the Bluetooth and the wifi.

Apple iPhone 4G

Previous models of iPhones carried something over from the previous model. Whether it was the app processor, baseband, or wifi, there was some reuse. Not so with the 4G, All the important bits are new.  The App processor is the same as in the iPad, the ARM Cortex-A8 based A4 (which really is a Samsung/Intrinsity design.  This design we know is capable of 1GHz (as it does such in the iPad, however, to preserve battery, its clocked at around 800MHz in the iPhone.  The Baseband processor is also all new, its now running a single ARM11 core at up to 416MHz.  The Baseband processor in the iPhone 4 is faster then the original CPU in the iPhone 3G. The Real Time OS that runs on the Baseband also changed, from Nucleos, to ThreadX. They are made by different companies (Mentor Graphics vs Express Logic) however the same designer wrote them both (William Lamie)

Apples mid-life CPU revisions

Its common for a design to evolve somewhat in the life of a product. This seems to have happened considerably within iPhone generations.

Device App Processor Part # Date Code
iPhone 339S0030 0722
iPhone 339S0042 0816
iPhone 3G 339S0036 0822
iPhone 3GS 339S0068 0919
iPhone 3GS 339S0073 0919
iPod Touch 1 339S0029 0731
iPod Touch 2 339S0048 0831
iPod Touch 3 339S0075 0928

Apple used several revisions of what SHOULD be the same CPU. the iPhone and iPhone 3G use the same processor, but here we see no less then 3 different part numbers for it.  In the 3GS we see something similar, even for devices dated the same week, there is 2 different part numbers.  Its curious what Apple/Samsung saw fit to change.  If you know of other part numbers, lets us know

, ,

Posted in:

April 22nd, 2010 ~ by admin

Apple rumored to buy ARM Holdings

AppleInsider has a post up about a potential interest Apple has in ARM Holdings, designers of the ARM processor cores used in the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, among tens of thousands of other devices. Apple has a market cap, of almost $250 billion, while ARM is just shy of $2 billion. Apple clearly has the cash abilty to purchase ARM outright, and they certainly have a reason to want to.

However, the rest of the computer world has an even bigger reason to keep Apple from doing so.  ARM devices are used by tens of thousands of devices, made by thousands of companies. Silicon containing ARM IP is made by hundreds of companies across the world. The success of these companies, their designs, and the devices they power is in large part based on fair, equal, and predictable availability of licenses from ARM.

If Apple were to own ARM, they could completely stop the availability of licenses to any design they felt was a competitor, or they could delay the release to third parties of newer designs. This is similar to the problem some phone companies are experiencing with Google and their Android OS, Google is motivated to sell their own branded Nexus One phone, with the latest version of Android, before giving the same version to third parties.

Read More »

April 5th, 2010 ~ by admin

Apple iPad Round up: Inside and Out The Processors of Apple’s Latest

Apple Officially has launched the iPad, essentially a scaled up iPhone, and judging by the model number, it started development several years ago around the time of the first iPod Touch. Many of the components are similar to the iPhone, if not the same. Obviously the biggest processor ews is the Apple A4 ARM processor at its heart. Its developed by Apple, and built by Samsung. a multi-die package, it includes the ARM processor, and PowerVR Graphics on one die, and then two 128MB DRAM dies as well.

iPad Motherboard - A4 CPU by Samsung

What is interesting about the A4? It has a 64bit memory bus, rather then the more standard 32bit but found on most ARM devices. This likely for faster memory access to support faster graphics.

Wifi, Bluetooth, and FM functions are handled by a Broadcom BCM4329 which includes two processors of its own (the documentation of this part does not state what architecture they are, but MIPS or XA-RISC is likely)

The screen controller is the Broadcom BCM5973/5974 which has been used by Apple for several years. The Baseband processor in the 3G version is the Infineon X-Gold 608 which contains a 312MHz ARM926 processor, a 2007 design, so probably saved Apple some money.

So all told the iPad 3G contains at least 4 seperate processors.

Instrinsity: ARM Processor Design House

In related news rumors are flying about Apple acquiring Intrinsity. Instrinsity is a processor design house which specializes in, you guessed it, ARM processors. Its likely they have helped Apple more on the A4 then P.A. Semi (another Apple acquisition) This is further supported by the fact that Intrinsity has worked a lot lately with Samsung in developing a 1GHz ARM CPU (the Hummingbird). Who fab’s the A4? Yah, Samsung.

EE Times: Inside the iPad
EE TImes: Inside the iPad: Broadcom/Samsung
iFixit: Teardown
ars technica: Apple buys Instrinsity

March 31st, 2010 ~ by admin

The Origin of ARM – New Finds for the Museum

I’ve posted a fair amount about ARM processors, as today, they are in about everything. That was not always the case. ARM began with a small British company called Acorn Computers, who made various computers such as the BBC Micro (6502 based). They began developing a RISC processor in 1983 with their silicon partner VLSI. We recently received a few early versions of the ARM so here they are, with a brief history.

VLSI VL2333-QC 8MHz ARM1 CPU circa 1988

By 1985 they had the first working silicon of the ARM1 processor, a full 32bit design. It had around 25,000 transistors (compared with the earlier Motorola 68000 which had 70,000) so was relatively cheaper.


VLSI VL86C010-16PSQC 16MHz ARM2 CPU circa 1990 - Prototype

The next year the released the ARM2 processor, which added a hardware multiply instruction and ran at 8MHz. It had around 30,000 transistors.

VLSI VY86C610C 30MHz ARM610 CPU circa 1994

VLSI VY86C610C 30MHz ARM610 CPU circa 1994

In 1994 the ARM6 was released with higher clocks (up to 60MHz) and more features.  The rest as we say is history, with many many varieties of cores available, at speeds over 1GHz, but STILL very small footprints. The ARM cores are licenses to hundreds of companies worldwide, and used in millions of devices, and it all began almost 30 years ago.

, ,

February 1st, 2010 ~ by admin

The Brains of the iPad – The Apple A4 Processor

Much buzz and attention has been given to the Apple iPad, while the jury may still be out as to what Apples tablet is or isn’t useful for, one thing is true, it packs apples first self-branded processor.  Apple touted the processor of the iPad as a new creation and the most advanced yet, which is a bit of a stretch.

Apple A4

Apple A4

The Apple A4 is a ARM Cortex-A9 based SoC, it uses the ARM Mali graphics core (which is fairly robust). It was Created by P.A. Semiconductor who Apple purchased a couple years back. P.A. use to be a PowerPC company, apparently not any more. It makes sense for Apple to use an ARM based processor in the iPad as that is what powers the iPhone and iPod.  The Mali graphics core is a bit of a mystery, as Apple holds a license to its competitor, made by PowerVR, and alas the iPhone uses a PowerVR core and not a Mali core.

Essentially the Apple A4 (based on what we currently know about it) is an off the shelf design. It is not any thing revolutionary, or in fact new at all. The Nvidia Tegra 2 is also a 1GHz ARM Cortex-A9 processor. TI has a 1GHz OMAP, Qualcomm the 1GHz Snapdragon (soon to be 1.5GHz), ST has the Nomadic, and Marvel has a 1.2GHz ARM.

Perhaps then, the iPad is a ‘version 2’ product, much like the very first iPhone, Apple has lots of room to make it better, to make it outperform, and not merely match the competition. Time will tell.

UPDATE: It has been confirmed that the A4 uses PowerVR graphic (same as the iPhone) and not a Cortex-A9 but a older Cortex-A8. An even less revolutionary design. I would imagine the work APple did on the A4 involved disabling/removing various features not needed by the iPad in order to cut the power consumption even more.

, ,

Posted in:

May 16th, 2009 ~ by admin

TI Grabs Luminary by the ARM

TI has purchased Luminary Micro for an undisclosed amount of money.  TI, one of the larger producers of embedded processors, and applications processors for mobile phones add significantly to their portfolio by adding Luminary, maker of ARM Cortex based microcontrollers.  Most of TI’s line of processor are now ARM based. They do of course also make MCS-51 products as well as their VERY widely used DSP series (such as the TMS320 series).

Source: EE Times

May 1st, 2009 ~ by admin

Windows and ARM: What the market needs.

There has been rumors flying a lot lately about Microsoft possibly making a version of Windows 7 available to run on ARM based processors.  Intel obviously is very much against this happening, which is why it NEEDS to happen.  The current CPU market is starting to get stale. Intel has around 80% marketshare, and AMD is struggling to compete.  This does not lead to innovation on the scale we saw back in the 90’s when there were several processor companies making Windows compatible chips.

Currently the #1 processor for mobile devices is ARM (in its many flavors), It powers the iPhone, the Palm Pre, many Blackberries and hundreds of others.  ARM processors run OS X, Android, PalmOS, and Windows Mobile (as well as Windows CE).  We now are seeing growth in a new segment, Netbooks, and soon to be tablets.  There are several of these that are ARM based and run flavors of linux, but the vast majority use Intel Atom CPU’s and run Windows XP.

ARM processors, clock for clock, are more powerful, and more efficient then the Intel Atom. Windows 7 running on ARM processors would open up vast new oppurtunities in the netbook/MID class of devices both in software, and hardware.  And perhaps more importantly it would force both AMD,and Intel to compete with better and more innovative products.  Intel would need to shift some of its focus away from AMD, and into competing with ARM, allowing AMD to grow as well. ARM licensing scheme would also allow us to break away from the choke hold that Intel currently holds on the x86 style architecture.

The end result? More speed, features, and efficiency for the consumer, and a much more stable processor industry.

April 22nd, 2009 ~ by admin

Amazons Kindle 2: A book with 4 brains

Amazon’s Kindle 2 e-book has been a pretty big success.  What many do not know is the amount of processing power in it.  The main processor is a Freescale MCIMX31LVKN5C Applications processor, which is based on a 532MHz ARM11 core (yes it is faster then an iPhone).  The Wireless connectivity is provided by a Qualcomm MSM6801A baseband processor, which at its heart is a 200MHz ARM9 core.  Also included in it is 2GB of Samsung moviNAND which is flash memory, with the controller (itself a processor) built in.  The electrophoretic bistable display uses a controller made by E-ink and Epson, which of course contains a microcontroller.

In modern electronics the question is not “Does it have a processor?”, but rather “How many processor cores does it have?”


Posted in:
Processor News