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Apple's chip future looks bright with first custom-designed A6

Agam Shah | Sept. 24, 2012
The iPhone 5 smartphone has the A6 CPU, which industry experts say is the first in a line of many upcoming Apple custom processors that will better balance performance with battery life in iPhones and iPads.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they put [A6] in the iPad," Gwennap said. Apple could just crank up the clock speed and put it in the iPad to take advantage of the larger battery in the tablet.

It's possible that Apple will ultimately design a custom ARM-based CPU for Mac laptops, but will perhaps wait two years for ARM's 64-bit architecture, Gwennap said. ARM processors are currently 32-bit and cannot address more than 4GB of memory, while Mac laptops need 64-bit architecture and the capability to address more memory. ARM has already announced the ARMv8 64-bit architecture and expects devices like smartphones and tablets based on the architecture to start shipping in 2014.

But the chip industry moves at a fast pace, and Apple is taking on more responsibility with custom processor design. Right now, the iPhone 5 has a separate CPU and baseband chip, but will have to keep up with Qualcomm, which already offers a Snapdragon S4 dual-core chip with an integrated radio, and Nvidia, which is on its way to integrating software-defined radios in future Tegra chips.

The company has to tweak chip designs or microarchitectures to keep pace with advancements in manufacturing process technology, much like Intel's tick-tock strategy, which advances chip technology in line with the manufacturing process, Anandtech's Shimpi said. It appears that the A6 chip may be made by Samsung based on the 32-nanometer process, he guessed.

Contract chip manufacturer TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.) is already making chips with the 28-nm process, and GlobalFoundries this week said it will start making chips using the 20-nm process in 2013 and the 14-nm process in 2014.

Gwennap said that Apple has able chip leadership in Peter Bannon, an Apple director who came to the company with the 2008 acquisition of PA Semi, and Gerard Wallace, an ARM fellow who was one of the leaders in the team that developed the Cortex-A8 and Cortex-A15 CPU. Apple's former platform architect Jim Keller was recently hired away by Advanced Micro Devices to run the processor division.

"They've been hiring like crazy," Gwennap said of Apple. "They have the ability to bring in the people they need."


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