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1 Reason Apple Inc.'s A10 Is Ridiculously Impressive

By Ashraf Eassa – Oct 24, 2016 at 8:30AM

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The A10 processor inside the iPhone 7 contains yet another new Apple-designed technology that helps to improve the user experience.

Image source: Apple. 

For quite some time, Apple (AAPL 0.96%) has been cranking out one crazy-impressive mobile processor after another. This year's A10 chip, unsurprisingly, contains the fastest processor cores ever crammed into a smartphone -- bar none. The processor performance of even Apple's prior-generation A9 has yet to be matched by any other mobile processor maker.

One interesting thing about the A10 is that it marks the first time that Apple has implemented a scheme in which it runs performance-sensitive tasks on a pair of high-performance cores and lighter tasks on a pair of slower but much more efficient processor cores (which Apple terms high-efficiency cores).

Until now, it was something of a mystery as to whether Apple's high-efficiency cores were an internal Apple design or simply an off-the-shelf, low-power processor like ARM Holdings' Cortex A53.

Thanks to some work done by the Linley Group (via Barron's), that mystery is now solved.

Meet the Apple Zephyr

The Linley Group says that Apple's high-efficiency core is a processor that Apple has codenamed Zephyr. The core is quite small, taking up just 0.78 square millimeters of area on the A10 processor (much smaller than Apple's high-performance Hurricane core found on the same chip), though the Linley Group says it's a bit larger than ARM's Cortex A53 (but I'd imagine that it's more powerful as well).

What's interesting about Zephyr, though, isn't necessarily its power or performance but instead the mere fact that it exists.

Apple broadening its processor portfolio

That Apple has designed an all-new processor core specifically to serve as a "high-efficiency" counterpart to a high-performance core suggests that the company has built its processor/chip teams out even further.

Indeed, Apple now seems to have the capability to crank out a new high-performance CPU core every year, and it also appears to have developed a dedicated team to build future high-efficiency cores (it's very unlikely that the development of Zephyr would have been handled by the same teams that build the high-performance cores). Considering this, I suspect that Apple has no fewer than three dedicated CPU teams.

Why three processor teams?

Based on the significant enhancements that Apple's processor teams make to the high-performance cores each year, I believe that the company has two CPU core development teams working in parallel. In other words, the same strategy that Apple's Mac processor supplier, Intel (INTC -3.34%), has employed for many years to build its own processor cores aimed at personal computers and servers.

Apple may very well have two parallel teams working on future high-efficiency cores (if Apple is looking to make big annual leaps with its high-efficiency cores, this would make sense), but they could probably get away with having a single team for this series of cores.

Although these cores are important to improving battery life while keeping iPhone performance snappy, a single team can still deliver a modest improvement in one year and a very large improvement in the following year.

This, in this Fool's opinion, is more than adequate given that the high-efficiency cores aren't used for performance-critical applications (though the better these cores get, the greater the number of tasks that Apple can allocate to them, potentially improving battery life -- something that really matters to smartphone users).

Apple's world-class chip team

Apple's chip team continues to demonstrate year-in and year-out that it's not just good, but it is a best-in-class chip development team. The main processor is a key enabler of the user experience on a smartphone, so it's a clear positive for Apple that it continues to lead the pack on this front.

Ashraf Eassa owns shares of Intel. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2018 $90 calls on Apple and short January 2018 $95 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. 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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