Apple’s A7 Chip Is Quite Incredible

It still doesn't seem as though investors give Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) enough credit for the sheer level of innovation that Apple brings to its products at the silicon level. Sure, when all is said and done, the user experience comes from the subtle interplay of hardware and software, but investors that constantly berate Apple for a "lack of innovation" certainly don't have much respect for what it takes to build best-of-breed silicon. Apple's A7 system-on-chip is arguably the most sophisticated mobile processor available today, and it seems likely that Apple will continue its tradition of delivering truly world-class processors.

It's not just about 64-bit
Don't get lost in the "64 bit" hype. While it's a great buzzword, the performance gains in the A7 come primarily from a very aggressive microarchitecture (that is, the actual design of the chip) as well as an instruction set that supports some interesting, performance-enhancing features. It does Apple's engineering team a great disservice when people claim that the "64 bit" (which all of the ARM chip vendors will get to over the next year or two, and what Intel is shipping today) is the real star here -- it's not.

What Apple built here is a supremely powerful processor core (much faster than any individual mobile core out there), and instead of trying to shoehorn four less powerful cores into the chip's die, it instead opted for two very powerful ones. Since most mobile software can barely take advantage of two cores, let alone four, this seems to have been an excellent decision made for the sake of user experience and engineering elegance, rather than for marketing. If you want an example of a truly poor set of design choices, look no further than Samsung's (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF  ) Exynos Octa, which is a power-guzzling configuration that simply can't match the elegance of Apple's design.

It's not just the processor, though
The CPU (the "brains" of the chip) is just one component of a mobile processor. Apple also took great care to use the best GPU that Imagination Technologies (LSE: IMG  ) had to offer, and managed to offer the very first commercial implementation of Imagination's PowerVR Series 6 GPUs. While some may point to the fact that Apple technically didn't design this GPU, it was the first to implement it. Apple also did a great deal of work developing the drivers for iOS. There's no doubt that Apple did a superb job there, as the A7's GPU is best-in-class.

On top of that, though, Apple did something very clever: it integrated a 4MB block of SRAM to act as a "system-level cache," according to Anandtech. In a nutshell, Apple realized that, in order to get truly good performance even with the limitations of mobile memory bandwidth, it needed a way to keep the processor and the graphics fed without dramatically increasing RAM/board costs. A fat, reasonably fast cache is usually the way to go, something that Intel's (NASDAQ: INTC  ) engineers have been exploiting with great success for many years.

Was this chip intended for a MacBook Air?
What strikes me as interesting is that the Apple A7, according to Anandtech, can be coaxed to draw about eight watts in a "power virus-like setting." This begins to border on Ultrabook-level power consumption, which begs the question, "Was Apple gunning to put this in a MacBook Air?"

There's no doubt that Apple was at least considering that possibility. While Apple will always use the best processor for the job (and for anything PC-class, Intel's processors are still superior), it wouldn't be surprising to see Apple's engineers at least attempt to build up its A-series processors to be good laptop-class chips. However, the distinction between tablet and PC is becoming increasingly academic. At what point does the iPad become fast enough that, with a good keyboard dock and external mouse, it essentially becomes a lower-end PC?

Apple's Tim Cook poked fun at Microsoft for trying to unify tablets and PCs, but it's clear Apple is doing the same thing (just in a more subtle, less dramatic manner). Is it any coincidence that Apple is porting more of its productivity software suite to the iPad?

Foolish bottom line
Apple's low-power chip team is truly best-in-class. It makes smart decisions and does them for the sake of user experience, not for arbitrary core count or GHz metrics. Add in Apple's complete control over the iOS software stack, and how it interacts with the hardware, and you've got a recipe for continued technological success. While this may not translate into an increased stock price (very few consumers care what chip is in their phone), it is certainly worth reflecting on for all (potential) Apple investors.

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Read/Post Comments (14) | Recommend This Article (4)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 04, 2013, at 2:09 PM, Tim1T wrote:

    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I've seen the chip first hand -- it's also in the 5S phone -- and it is a screamer.

    There has been a ton of tech media smack-down saying that the chip is more hype than an advancement. And that strikes me as shortsighted.

    Apple tends to plan new functionality based on seeing when a specific technology is advanced enough to support those uses.

    For example the current smart phone and tablet approach couldn't have existed ten years ago. You needed to have a chip architecture that was able to put full computer functionality onto a low wattage chip.

    And with these chips, a phone or tablet has the ability to handle what a dedicated desktop workstation used to do. That should create some interesting synergies.

  • Report this Comment On November 04, 2013, at 2:09 PM, mattack2 wrote:

    > begs the question

    No, it doesn't.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question

  • Report this Comment On November 04, 2013, at 3:43 PM, JoeLemon wrote:

    Since Mac OS doesn't run on ARM, and either does any of the software for a mac exactly how would they put it in the Air?

    Creating 2 cores instead of 4 is innovative? They do that because ios can only run 1 app at a time. 4 cores is really more for multi tasking like the surface can do.

    Another article written by someone that knows little about tech and clearly an Apple fanboy.

  • Report this Comment On November 04, 2013, at 4:17 PM, Tim1T wrote:

    Joe, instead of calling someone a name, offer a bit of insight. Go into more detail regarding the value of 4 cores -- why someone using a tablet might need to be running that many tasks concurrently, why the multitasking that iOS does indeed have is different from what you're talking about.

    Calling someone a "fanboy" is a put down. It is immensely disrespectful and cheapens the discussion here. I realize that lots of commenters say stuff like that (or worse) but is that the person you want to be?

    If you have a deeper understanding of an issue let that make your point.

  • Report this Comment On November 04, 2013, at 4:30 PM, twolf2919 wrote:

    @JoeLemon - you really are a Lemon, aren't you? iOS, since it's inception has been "multi-tasking", being a derivative of Mac OS X (how else do you explain iPhone's ability - since the very beginning - to play music in the background while you did something else?). It's just that Apple didn't allow users (or apps) to willy-nilly run things concurrently, given battery/power consumption consideration.

    With iOS 7, some (but not all) of the previous restrictions were lifted.

    For someone who knows so very little about multi-tasking, you're sure quick to criticize the author of this article.

  • Report this Comment On November 04, 2013, at 5:10 PM, webguy76 wrote:

    "It's just that Apple didn't allow". Exactly and that is the reason I dumped that piece of crap company after the 3G.

  • Report this Comment On November 04, 2013, at 5:31 PM, JoeLemon wrote:

    There is no value in 4 cores if the software limits you to 1 apps at a time like IOS does. But that doesn't make it innovative. The A7 is licensed from ARM and made by Samsung.

    IOS didn't allow there version of multi taking until around the time the iphone 4 came out. Allowing some software to run in the background is not multi tasking. It is like a TSR in the DOS days. It would be like saying you are running your app and the drivers at the same time and calling it multi tasking. You clearly are the one that doesn't know what multi tasking is. It is the ability to run 2 or more programs at the same time not run a TSR in the background.

    "derivative of Mac OS X" are you kidding me? IOS is a completely different OS.

  • Report this Comment On November 04, 2013, at 8:57 PM, deasystems wrote:

    @JoeLemon: iOS does *not* limit the user to one app at a time. iOS is fully multi-tasking and has been so almost from the start. iOS multi-tasking was opened to third-party developers with the release of iOS 4. Apple has since extended both the user interface in regard to background apps and processes and also added to the types of background processes iOS allowed to operate in the background. With the release of iOS 7, iOS supports background operation for streaming, downloads, music, GPS and positioning functions, motion tracking, notifications and social networking, etc. Essentially, *any* app can take advantage of iOS 7's multi-tasking to keep updated in the background.

    By the way, you don't get to change the definition of multi-tasking. Help yourself and learn about it. Wikipedia is a good start.

    For your information, Apple's A7 CPU was designed and engineered by Apple entirely in-house. Samsung is merely Apple's contract 'bricklayer.'

    Finally, iOS is derived from OS X, with which it shares the Darwin foundation and various software frameworks.

  • Report this Comment On November 05, 2013, at 12:47 AM, JoeLemon wrote:

    There is your problem you get your info from Wikipedia. Are you trying to claim that DOS was multi tasking then? It ran background tasks as well.

    If apple designed it then why are they paying licencing fees for it?

    Great then get OS X to run on ARM. Good luck with that since it doesn't work.

  • Report this Comment On November 05, 2013, at 2:04 AM, DoctorBiobrain wrote:

    Joe, would you kindly explain to us non-tech people the difference between what iPhone is doing and your phone? I mean, I can stream music on Pandora while downloading apps and surfing the web; and then have various texts, emails, alarms, reminders, and other things pop up the whole time. And that's on my iPhone 4, which is over three years old. How is that not multitasking, and what else are we missing out on?

    And honestly, did you read the article above and imagine he said it was innovative to use two chips? The point was that it was better to use two powerful cores than four weak ones; as many non-iPhones do. But I don't see where the use of two cores was specifically listed as an innovation? Did you perchance make that up?

    And for the record: Apple designs the A7. Yes, it's based on ARM, but it's specifically designed by Apple and they're the only ones who have it. And yes, it's quite innovative; from what I understand. Sorry guy, but there's the distinct possibility that the new iPhone is better than your phone. Does that bother you?

  • Report this Comment On November 05, 2013, at 3:24 AM, BABarracus wrote:

    brian that is limited multitasking with more cores you can do more and as your phone gets older you will find it running less apps and apps crashing. actually if you go to "phone arena" and comepare the specs on apple phones they have slower processors than alot of androids. My old iphone 4s had 800 mhz less than a gb of ram

    what it means to have more cores is if you are multi tasking the phone wont become slow and unresponsive becuase of you doing alot of stuff like updating apps and running a flash player on the phone.

    really iphone isnt really good at handling flash to begin with because of its low specs

    The problem with andriods is for many people its not simple to use becuase they are not used to the OS but once you learn it you might be happier with it but that is provided that you find something that you use you phone for outside of making calls texting and getting email

  • Report this Comment On November 05, 2013, at 3:48 AM, DoctorBiobrain wrote:

    BA, comparing specs between iPhones and non-iPhones is fairly useless, since they're just so different. Apple is known for being able to do more with less, while other phone makers hype up a few specific categories to impress people while going cheap on other aspects of their phones. That's why the new iPhone is the fastest phone on the market in most categories, even with fewer cores.

    For myself, I'm still using an iPhone 4 and don't find that I have problem running lots of apps, even though I'm now using the latest OS. I does crash every now and again, but it has nothing to do with running lots of apps since it'll happen when I've only got Safari running and nothing else. I'm thinking it has more to do with it being an old phone using a brand new OS. What's impressive is that it really is faster in some ways than it was with OS6.

    Overall, I've found that most Android users really don't know much about iPhones and they imagine that the phones are several years out of date because that was the last time they really used one. I mean, the 4S is over two years old, which is a long time in phone age. You should try the 5S and tell us how slow it is with only two cores.

  • Report this Comment On November 05, 2013, at 11:34 AM, Manchini wrote:

    "Apple's Tim Cook poked fun at Microsoft for trying to unify tablets and PCs, but it's clear Apple is doing the same thing (just in a more subtle, less dramatic manner)."

    Really? So working on a low power ARM chip to power MacBooks would mean they are doing "the same thing" as Microsoft - a one-size-fits-all device? Hardly.

    "Is it any coincidence that Apple is porting more of its productivity software suite to the iPad?"

    Really? Which additional software do you mean? The iLife software that launched alongside the very first iPad?

    Perhaps you'd meant to say that they're making it free with the purchase of new devices?

  • Report this Comment On November 06, 2013, at 5:23 PM, JoeLemon wrote:

    I have an iphone 5S and a ipad 3. I also plan to buy a 13 inch ipad if they make one like rumors say.

    The difference is I'm not a fanboy. I work in the tech field, so I also know tech.

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