Apple's A8 Probably Won't Be a Quad-Core

Apple's next-generation chip is likely to be yet another dual core beast.

Mar 6, 2014 at 9:00PM

As the next-generation iPhone and iPad products draw nearer, it is interesting to see the rumors surfacing about the next-generation A8 system-on-chip that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) plans to power these devices with. It seems pretty clear at this point that Taiwan Semiconductor (NYSE:TSM) has gotten most, if not all, of this business with its next-generation 20-nanometer manufacturing process. However, the details get a little bit hazy from there.

Some intelligent speculation is likely worthwhile at this point. So, what will the A8 feature?

Probably still a dual core CPU
Before the A7 chip made its debut in the most recent crop of iOS devices, many had suspected that it would feature a quad-core CPU -- a natural extension of the dual-core A6 system-on-chip powered by Apple's custom-designed CPU core called Swift. However, Apple surprised everybody with yet another brand new CPU core called Cyclone. Per core, it was a substantial improvement over the previous-generation A6, and much to everybody's surprise, it implemented the ARMv8 64-bit instruction set that offered some powerful new extensions.

The next-generation A8, which will be built on an improved 20-nanometer process, is likely to offer an enhanced version of the Cyclone core and could potentially clock much higher. Since most applications on iOS are very lightly threaded, the user experience is affected much more noticeably by improving per-core performance rather than by blindly chasing more cores. Unlike the Android crowd, Apple can focus on delivering the best user experience rather than the most marketable specs to those unfamiliar with CPU technology.

What about graphics?
It has been pretty clear for some time that Apple has at least been pursuing the development of in-house GPU IP. That being said, Apple and its longtime GPU IP licensing partner, Imagination Technologies (LSE:IMG) recently announced an extension of the multi-year IP licensing agreement that they have in place. This suggests that Apple will continue to use Imagination's IP for at least the A8 and quite possibly for several generations more. It is probably too early for an implementation of Imagination's recently announced Series 6XT IP, so a six-core variant of the Series 6 IP, known as the G6630, is probably the best bet for Apple.

Foolish bottom line
This is speculation, albeit of the reasonably informed variety, so Apple's A8 may be wildly different from the guesses outlined here. On top of that, there are many other aspects of the SoC that will need to be updated and enhanced, depending on the kinds of features that the new phone supports. Expect a faster system-level cache and potentially a wider LPDDR interface, an improved image signal processor, and perhaps other dedicated blocks to support features that we don't even know about yet. In short, the A8 should be a chip fit for the world's best smartphone.  

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Ashraf Eassa owns shares of Imagination Technologies. The Motley Fool recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Imagination Technologies. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not 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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