Did Apple Just Rain on NVIDIA's Parade?

Did the storyline of 2012 as the year of the quad-core mobile CPU just go out the window? Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) opted to stick with a dual-core CPU in its new A5X in the new iPad, and tech trends and their corresponding narratives tend to live and die by what Cupertino dictates as important.

Is four better than twelve?
With NVIDIA's (Nasdaq: NVDA  ) Tegra 3 at the forefront of the quad-core mobile migration, did the Mac maker effectively just rain on NVIDIA's parade?

Well, yes, since Apple directly stacked up its A5X right next to the Tegra 3 in a comparison of graphics performance. But also no, since Apple did bump up the processing cores in the GPU to four, so the A5X has a dual-core CPU and quad-core GPU.

Meanwhile, dominant mobile chipmaker Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM  ) still has quad-core Snapdragons in its pipeline slated for later this year. In all likelihood, Apple will probably also follow up with a quad-core A6 later this year in the next iPhone, but only time will tell on that one.

Source: Apple.com. Used with permission from Apple PR.

Source: Apple.com. Used with permission from Apple PR.

Marketing chief Phil Schiller compared a couple of Apple's custom A-family processors to the Tegra 3, with the dual-core A5 that launched last year in the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S boasting double the graphics performance of the quad-core Tegra 3. The new A5X supposedly fetches four times the graphics performance.

Keep in mind that the Tegra 3 really has five cores in the CPU, with one being a low-power "Ninja" core for tasks that don't need as much horsepower as the four primary ones deliver, while the Tegra 3's GPU has a whopping 12 cores.

NVIDIA to Apple: Can I get your digits?
Apple didn't provide benchmarks or any additional data to show how it arrived at the 4x figure, and NVIDIA wants to see the digits behind the claim and spokesman Ken Brown called Apple's assertion a "really generic statement." Once the new iPad hits the market next week, the smaller chipmaker plans on running its own tests and will probably release its own counter claims.

Sources: Apple.com, NVIDIA.com.

Sources: Apple.com, NVIDIA.com.

AnandTech had separately run some benchmark tests on the Asus Transformer Prime (and its Tegra 3) a few months ago and showed that it outperformed the iPad 2 (and its A5) in a few categories. The scores were related to browser performance and not graphics performance, and the Tegra 3 wasn't outperforming by fourfold.

Is there an app for that?
Benchmarks aside, you also have to remember that many current mobile applications aren't optimized to tap into the raw power that four cores serve up. NVIDIA and Apple both worked with a handful of game developers to tout the graphics performance of their respective chips.

For example, NVIDIA collaborated with Madfinger Games to show off Shadowgun on the Transformer Prime, while Apple tapped Epic Games to showcase the next installment of its popular Infinity Blade franchise at the iPad event.

Most apps out there don't get such special attention. Apps will follow in processors' footsteps, but for now, some of that quad-core power from the Tegra 3 remains untapped.

Infighting within the ARMy
Apple, NVIDIA, and Qualcomm are all ARM Holdings (Nasdaq: ARMH  ) licensees, but Apple and Qualcomm are among the few players that set themselves apart with chip differentiation. Qualcomm licenses an ARM instruction set and builds its Snapdragons from scratch, and Apple acquired small chip shops P.A. Semi and Intrinsity to custom-design its ARM-based A-processors in-house.

Other players like NVIDIA, Samsung, and Texas Instruments use stock reference ARM cores for their respective Tegra, Exynos, and OMAP families. That distinction is one reason Qualcomm isn't afraid of NVIDIA and why its processor designs are more "elegant," according to Qualcomm's Raj Talluri, and this is probably an advantage that Apple should enjoy as well.

Same old story
Make no mistake: 2012 is still the year of the quad-core mobile processor. It just won't happen as fast as we may have thought a few months ago, and it's probably not as pressing as NVIDIA might have you believe.

All good things come to those who wait.

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Fool contributor Evan Niu has sold bullish put spreads on Qualcomm and owns shares of Apple and ARM Holdings, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. Check out his holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Qualcomm. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple and NVIDIA, creating a bull call spread position in Apple, and writing puts on NVIDIA. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2012, at 6:39 PM, philippalmer wrote:

    I'm actually going to go out on a linb here and say it may be the other way around! Apple rarely slams the competition much less uses them directly in a product debut. Check out this article at Forbes saying Apple is threatened by Nvidia and its Tegra 3?!

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/patrickmoorhead/2012/03/09/apple...

  • Report this Comment On March 12, 2012, at 11:46 AM, lucasmonger wrote:

    I think it's easy for Apple to backup those claims. The current screen has 4x the pixels as the previous screen. If the new iPad 3 runs any game at the same frame rate as on an iPad 2, it's pushing 4 times as many pixels, you have a 4X improvement in GPU speed.

    I don't think you will see games rendering 4X faster with 4X the pixels for an effective 16X speed increase. And since nobody else has a retina display on their tablet, nobody can make a direct GPU speed comparison since the playing fields are inherently different.

    No matter how much Nvidia may complain about the basis of Apple's claims, there's no way for Nvidia to catch up to Apple's tremendous lead. The Apple retina display for the iPad currently demolishes all other tablet competitors by screen resolution alone.

    Bold prediction: will Apple release a 4X resolution Hidef TV later this year to justify a higher price for a top-end TV? Imagine a 3800x2160 display (double of 1900x1080) with games on it... Xbox and Playstation will be doomed.

  • Report this Comment On March 14, 2012, at 6:36 AM, hkwint wrote:

    Dear Mr. Niu,

    Your claim that Apple differentiates its chip more than NVidia or TI is totally bogus - it sounds like you buy into the Apple-PR. In fact it's the other way around: Apple doesn't almost do anything themselves.

    Apple buys a stock CPU-microarchitecture design from ARM, the Cortex A9. It buys a stock GPU design from Imagination Technologies (LSE:IMG), being the PowerVR SGX 5. Probably, though less known, it also buys some Video-codec design from yet another company. The foundry process is roughly the same as the Hummingbird-series from Samsung (now Exynos). To summarize:

    -Apple doesn't design it's CPU,

    -Apple doesn't design it's GPU,

    -Apple doesn't design it's a/v codecs,

    -Apple doesn't interfere with the foundry process.

    Compare with NVidia:

    -Nvidia doesn't design it's CPU, but it does add a fifth core which is non-standard,

    -Nvidia _does_ design it's own GPU,

    -NVidia doesn't design it's a/v,

    -NVidia uses two processes from TSMC integrated on one chip, as there's a "low power island" for the ninja-core. This means more steps in production.

    So, as you see, it's Apple which uses stock parts and nvidia who does more differentiation.

    Compare to TI:

    -TI doesn't design it's CPU, uses same as Apple

    -TI doesn't design it's GPU, uses same as Apple,

    -TI _does_ design it's own A/V codecs, being the IVA-family.

    So, if we assume Apple uses stock A/V's, it means also TI differentiates more than Apple does.

    What sets Qualcomm apart, is that they design _both_ their own CPU (El Krait currently) and GPU (Adreno, bought from ATi).

    Please note: after Apple bought Intrinsity and PA Semi, many of the old employees from those two companies "abandoned ship". Besides, PA Semi was a PPC-centered company, probably those people don't know that much about ARM.

    Intrinsity made some process-improvements for ARM CPU's, but it was a task provided by both Samsung and Apple. Therefore, the Intrinsity 'improvement' (Fast14) is _dependent_ on Samsung foundries, and that could be the reason why Apple is dependent on Samsung for fabbing the CPU's, and why Apple has a hard time leaving Samsung fabs. Needless to say, both the Samsung Hummingbird and Exynos have the same Intrinsity-improvements.

    The reason Apple is comparing with Tegra3, is that it's the only quadcore-CPU SoC available in stores at this moment. Tegra3-performance is pretty lame compared to it's predecessor Tegra2: The only difference can be attributed to higher clockspeeds. One could argue that the Tegra3 - therefore - isn't that much of an advantage over the old Tegra2.

    Competitors are going to offer much faster solutions, such as the dualcore Qualcomm S4-series which seems faster than the Tegra3 in most tasks.

    Basically, this means quadcores are "just not ready" for primetime yet, and nVidia rushed out an under-performing part to be 'first on the market', which explains why the performance of their part is pretty low, and actually doesn't show any "per mHz" improvement over old solutions.

    It seemse Apple's latest chips have to compete against the Qualcomm S4 and maybe later to newer ST/E A-9540, Samsung's new Exynos, Huawei's (HiSilicon's) dual core Cortex A9 chip and TI OMAP 5 solutions, so the Tegra3 isn't even that important. It's only used a lot at this moment as it's the only quadcore available, but that doesn't say anything about its performance: Far from.

    Because we already know that the dual core Qualcomm S4 and probably also the Huawei dual core SoC's deliver better performance than the Tegra3.

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