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

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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  • Report this Comment On March 06, 2014, at 11:56 PM, SimchaStein wrote:

    Foolish to only count cpu cores. There is also the M7 chip, the GPU cores and multi-threading. 64 bit will speed up certain processing work-loads. Shrinking to 22 nm increases speed. Apple makes smart trade-off decisions vs their competitors' kitchen sink approach.

  • Report this Comment On March 07, 2014, at 12:21 AM, MattZN wrote:

    For a mobile device, the number of cores beyond 2 is virtually irrelevant from the viewpoint of the user. Even threaded applications won't benefit much unless they are doing a lot of number crunching (and most won't be). Over the last few years, nearly all the heavy lifting (such as video presentation) has shifted over to the GPU.

    What matters more, and what Apple has focused on, is UI responsiveness. UI responsiveness has nothing whatsoever to do with how many cores a device has or even how fast the cpu is, and everything to do with the OS's software and application support libraries. UI's on 20-year-old machines with 1MHz cpus were actually more responsive than UI's on today's machines. Simpler of course, but that's beside the point.

    Android still has serious issues in this department when it comes down to it, frankly. My Android devices stutter and have random button and swipe response latencies all the time. My Apple devices do not.

    One interesting twist is the multi-core ARMs where one core is intentionally driven at a lower clock to reduce power consumption. One might think this would be an advantage over Apple's 2-core methodology but it's really more of a bandaid, and it really complicates process scheduling. Ultimately Apple will move to more cores, but there's no rush. Frankly, cpu cores and gpu cores represent a trade-off... which would you rather have? A more powerful gpu subsystem or a more powerful cpu subsystem?

    -Matt

  • Report this Comment On March 07, 2014, at 9:45 AM, chyang wrote:

    @SimchaStein The A8 will be on 20nm process.

    @ChaimYonkel2013 Tim Cook's vision is very different from that of Steve Jobs. There is less concentration on new hardware products, but more emphasis on using hardware devices as platform.

    Apple's next frontier is in the automobiles and retail experience by their introduction of iBeacon.

    It is less about putting a device in your hand, but to learn your behavior and influence what you see and what you buy. Apple's plan is much more ambitious than anyone realize.

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