It is plainly evident from Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) job openings and many of its hires over the last several years that the iDevice maker is working to build a custom graphics processor. The company has traditionally -- and to great effect -- licensed graphics intellectual property from British graphics specialist Imagination Technologies (NASDAQOTH:IGNMF).
However, with a custom Apple-designed graphics architecture, Apple may be able to deliver even better performance/power than standard Imagination designs.
It has not been clear when we should expect to see Apple's first truly custom graphics processor, but a recent announcement from Imagination may suggest that we will see it in the company's next-generation A10 processor.
Imagination's next-generation GPU is... Series 7XT Plus?
Typically, Imagination outs new graphics processor intellectual property at a yearly clip, with Apple generally leading the way in terms of implementing the graphics specialist's technologies. For example, the A7 processor includes Imagination's Series 6 GPU architecture, the A8 implements the Series 6XT, and the A9 packs a Series 7XT design.
I would have expected Imagination to announce a next-generation graphics processor known as the Series 8XT at around this time, with the first implementation likely being in Apple's A10 processor inside of this fall's iPhone 7. However, at CES, Imagination announced that its newly updated graphics intellectual property family isn't the Series 8, but is instead the Series 7XT Plus.
According to AnandTech, the big improvements in the Series 7XT Plus architecture have to do mainly with GPU computing applications as well as some smaller general improvements in a bid to improve power efficiency over Imagination's Series 7XT family.
Is this enough for Apple?
Apple seems to care a lot about the graphics performance of its iDevices, and I would imagine that it would like to deliver yet another significant boost in graphics performance with the iPhone 7 later this year. After all, the more performance that Apple puts into its iDevices, the greater freedom that app developers will have to create unique and rich applications (particularly games).
It doesn't seem to me that a mild enhancement to the pre-existing Series 7XT graphics processors will really be enough to deliver an impressive year-over-year graphics improvement.
Now, what Apple could very well do is use the Series 7XT Plus graphics architecture in a configuration with more graphics "clusters" than it did in the A9. An eight-cluster Series 7XT Plus design, for example, has the potential to offer a lot more performance than the six-cluster Series 7XT design inside of the A9 does.
However, if Apple can deliver a more powerful and/or area-efficient solution to achieve this desired level of performance, then I would expect to see that instead.
Nothing conclusive at this point, but don't be surprised if the A10 has an Apple GPU
It's obviously far too early for us outsiders to tell what Apple will ultimately do with respect to the graphics inside of the A10. However, Apple is known to have been working on an in-house graphics processor for years now (at least since 2013).
It's probably not going to be too much longer before we see Apple's first in-house graphics processor emerge, but the question -- at least in my mind -- is whether we will see it in the A10 chip or in the company's 2017 A11 chip.
At the end of the day, I believe Apple wants to continue to differentiate its A-series processors as much as possible, and if Apple ultimately develops an in-house GPU that's even better than the already excellent Imagination GPUs, then this should be a nice point of differentiation.