AMITIAE -Thursday 12 November 2014

Cassandra: More Innovation than even Apple's Friends Realised

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


One of the interesting developments from Apple over the last few years has been the way its own processors have been evolving. When these first appeared in iOS devices, I theorised that the end result could well be desktop class chips. This would not only mean that Apple could walk away from Intel, as it did from Motorola several years back, but that other manufacturers would not be able to emulate the progress that was being made.

iPads With the Intel chips, pretty much everyone buys the same so, apart from differences in the respective operating systems, all computer makers have the same potential in accessing features that a new processor brings, as well as experiencing the same limits.

With the A-series processors, that universality just does not exist; and we began to see some of the possibilities when Apple released the iPhone 5s with its A7 chips.

Apart from the 64-bit computing capabilities, putting Apple at least a year ahead of any other smartphone maker, there were a few raised eyebrows when it was explained that the numerical data for the fingerprint access system, was stored in a secure enclave on the processor.

In this way, it would be impossible for Apple (or any agency that demanded Apple turn over its user data) to use the fingerprint or its numerical translation: that was stored on the user's phone. As we saw with the release of the iPhone 6, that safe data allowed Cupertino to dovetail the fingerprint system with its new Apple Pay.

And Apple Pay also made use of a similar secure enclave on the A8 processor for storage of credit card information. I almost typed, "details" then, but checked myself as - like the fingerprints - the data of the credit card itself is not stored; and nor is it used directly during any transactions.

When any new Apple product appears, many commentators must reach for their word processors and type out the first thing that comes into their heads, usually ignoring some of the new features intent on convincing themselves and doing a disservice to their readers. The lack of innovation at Cupertino always goes down quite well, but anyone who reads the technical specifications - or who does listen to what Cook, Schiller, Cue, Federighi and others actually say - will be aware that the approach tends to be incremental, but some of those little jumps contain significant meaning.

That change to 64-bit computing with the A7 for example, was mainly ignored, except by the handset makers who are still scrambling to put this together. Some makers are also trying to come up with a proper fingerprint system, while Apple has now introduced this to its latest iPad with Retina display; and with that A8X processor.

My approach, apart from taking time to read the technical specifications, and rerunning the videos of any product introduction, is to wait for the specialists to look under the hood. First out is usually iFixit who buy, then strip down each device (and not just from Apple) with the intent to conduct an examination of how repairable such devices are. Apple has not scored highly of late here.

While iFixit are tearing down the iPhones, iPads and MacBooks, they occasionally stumble across some interesting little points, such as the type of connectors, the source of chips and the ways in which accessories (such as the camera) are connected.

For a deeper analysis we have to wait a little longer and I take my hat off to AnandTech, whose founder has now moved to Apple, but who handed over the mantle to Ryan Smith. Ryan has just put out the AnandTech report on the A8X and his title speaks volumes: "Better than I thought."

Early guesses about the configuration were found to be not totally right, so the findings have been re-evaluated. Also, benchmark tests have shown that the A8X is outperforming the A8 (in the iPhone 6) by a wider margin than expected. The answer in part came when AnandTech engineers were able to see a die shot of A8X - a low resolution image of how the chip is constructed and what it contains.

They saw this under an agreement that does not allow them to publish this die shot, but they have enough (and enough information) to be able to revise the description of the A8X, on the way implying that Apple is being far more innovative than many others at the current time.

It was initially thought that the A8X was using the Imagination GX6650, but the Apple customised version has evolved to such an extent that AnandTech are calling it a new design. Explaining perhaps, "what Apple has been doing with so many GPU engineers over the last couple of years".

The 3 billion transistors increases the transistor count "by nearly 50% while increasing the die size by only 40%" over the A6X and producing a processor that has nearly twice as many transistors as Intel's 4C+GT3 Haswell design, "and right in between NVIDIA's GK104 (3.5B) and GK106 (2.5B) GPUs."

Other questions concerning the reasons for the specifics of the design as intended for the iPad and the asymmetrical 3-core design are discussed with the conclusion that "Apple has once again thrown us a curveball".

MacBook Air
Images by permission of Apple

This advanced design (and all those GPU engineers) reinforces the idea that processor development is not about to stand still. The rate that the A-series developed in the last couple of years (A6, 1.3GHz; A7, 1.4GHz; A8, 1.4GHz; A8X, 1.5GHz) would perhaps point to far faster speeds, able to handle the requirements of desktop class applications within a year or so. The clear favourite for such an in-house processor would be the MacBook Air. Like the low end iMac and Mac mini computers, this currently has a 1.4 GHz Intel i5 processor (which can be configured up to 1.7 Ghz).

Apple may not be there quite yet, but it may be possible in a year or two that not all Macs will be equipped with Intel inside.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.



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