The Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone 6 is nearly here. While investors and industry watchers alike have gotten a glimpse into what the software is going to be like with the unveiling of iOS 8 at Apple's 2014 World Wide Developers Conference, and while we know basically what the phone is going to look like, the mystery that remains is just what Apple's next processor -- likely dubbed A8 -- will bring to the table.
Significant improvement all around
Apple understands -- possibly better than anybody else -- that smartphones and tablets are legitimate computing devices. While the idea that a smartphone or a tablet will replace a notebook or a desktop seems a bit farfetched, the notion that the applications that phones and tablets are tasked to run aren't "serious" and "compute intensive" is equally ludicrous.
When Apple moved from the A6 to the A7, it roughly doubled performance in both graphics and in general purpose processing through a combination of manufacturing technology improvements (moving from Samsung's 32-nanometer to 28-nanometer node) as well as substantial architectural enhancements.
As Apple moves to TSMC's 20-nanometer node, there is very little reason to expect that the company's A8 will be any less of a step forward.
What to expect?
In moving from Samsung's 28-nanometer node to TSMC's 20-nanometer manufacturing technology, Apple will likely see a modest per-transistor performance increase and a roughly 2x improvement in logic density. Given this, I expect to see the following broad-strokes specifications for the Apple A8 chip:
- Two custom-designed, very high performance ARM ARMv8-based CPU cores. Apple is unlikely to move to a quad-core design and will instead focus further on per-core performance.
- Imagination Technologies PowerVR Series 6XT GPU (though this would be a very aggressive timeline; if not Series 6XT, Apple may implement the Series 6 G6630 -- the larger variant of the G6430 found in the A7)
- The A7 features a 4 megabyte systemwide cache memory. In support of the faster graphics processor, Apple may increase the size of this cache further while at the same time increasing the bandwidth (i.e., how much data it can transfer per second).
What does this all add up to? I would expect that in terms of the "headline" performance numbers that Apple presents at the iPhone 6 launch, the company will claim the following:
- 50% more CPU performance (from a combination of architectural enhancements, and better power management enabling higher peak clock speeds)
- Twice the graphics performance
This should be quite a compelling upgrade from the prior generation iPhone, particularly as the new iPhone models will need the added graphics oomph in order to play intensive 3D at the higher display resolutions that are tipped for these models.
Foolish bottom line
Quite possibly the most exciting thing about Apple's new product releases is the sheer level of silicon innovation that Apple is bringing to the table. In an industry filled with marketing gibberish about how more, weaker cores is better, it's great to see Apple instead pushing per-core performance (which is what really drives user experience) as well as graphics performance higher.
Apple is all about the user experience, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the A8 ends up being every bit the stunner that the A7 was at the iPhone 5s launch.