Apple A4

The Internets was abuzz with the launch of the newest Apple hotness, the iPad. However, the message that struck me the most about the iPad wasn’t that it was a well designed table, nor was it because of the iBooks store, nor was it because it wasn’t multi-tasking – it was because it came with Apple A4 – a custom designed System-on-Chip from Apple.

Now, as a processor guy, it naturally piqued my interest. However, after looking it up, it turns out that it is just a regular ARM Cortex-A9 CPU paired with an ARM Mali GPU core. Boring! There is nothing at all sexy about this SoC. I was hoping to see the PowerPC make a comeback into the Apple stable, maybe with either an ARM emulation layer or a co-processor.

The business side of me thinks that this marks a big shift in Apple’s business. Now that Apple owns its own silicon, you can bet that the A4 will find it’s way into all other Apple devices, starting with the iPhone and iPod that already use the Cortex-A8. However, the Cortex-A9 is gunning for Intel’s neck. It is the next-generation ARM processor that is capable of running applications as fast as Intel’s processors can but at a fraction of the power envelope. So, I can also see this processor moving into other Apple products including their AppleTV, laptops and desktops in the future.

Don’t be surprised if Apple completely shifts their devices over to the A4 because Apple has already done it several times. The original Apple PCs used a 68K, then a PowerPC and finally an x86 processor. If there is any company that can execute an architectural shift smoothly, it is Apple. They have already proven their ability to do so more than once, while still maintaining backwards compatibility with their older applications.

If Apple wants to take on the server market, this would be a good processor to do it too. They can stuff the A4 into a bunch of blades and house them all inside a sexy rack. They will instantly provide a differentiating factor to the Intel based servers – high-density and low-power computing with the ability to accelerate some floating point applications and not just integer ones. ARM has always said that it’s processors were good for data-centres, but there hasn’t been a kit released from any Tier-1 vendor.

You know what, it’s going to be like the 80s and 90s again!

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Published by

Shawn Tan

Chip Doctor, Chartered Engineer, Entrepreneur, Law Graduate.

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