The amazing story of Apple’s chips

With the new A9 and A9X chips in its iPhones and iPads, Apple has mobile chips that are better than Intel’s. In fact Apple’s chip business is a very impressive technology story. I don’t have time to put together a full analysis, but I have collected some recent articles. figure-2

Many sources are suggesting that Apple’s current chip generation (A9 and A9X) is better than Intel’s in low-power (mobile) performance. I guess it’s not news that Intel is behind Qualcomm in mobile, but I still find it surprising that Apple’s own chips are apparently better than X86 for Macintosh low-end laptops!

In a note to investors on Thursday, a copy of which was provided to AppleInsider, analyst Timothy Arcuri noted that new iPad Pro’s A9X chip offers performance that surpasses the Intel Core M processor used in the new 12-inch MacBook. The CPU also compares favorably to the Core i5 processor used in the baseline Macbook Air, although it is still far behind that of higher-end Macbook Pro laptops which use Core i5 and i7 processors.A look at the GPU shows a similar story: The A9X outperformed all Apple laptops that use integrated Intel graphics, registering a three-to-four-times improvement in frame rate of the 12-inch MacBook with Retina display. The iPad Pro processor also posted an improvement of as much as 40 percent over the Intel Iris 5200 integrated graphics featured on the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

By the way when we say Apple “makes its own chips,” it only designs them. Like the rest of the chip industry, the actual physical manufacturing is done by fab companies:  Apple’s A9 SoC Is Dual Sourced From Samsung & TSMC
The business side of this story is that Intel dominates the high end (PCs and servers), but mobile devices massively outsell computers now.  (Very roughly 1 billion smartphones in 2014, 800 million other phones, and only 300 million PCs.)  I would never write Intel’s obituary (I helped with their manufacturing transformation in the early 90s, and still feel a sentimental attachment), but it is certainly a long term concern for them. They are well aware of the problem, and continue to  push in mobile.

A history of Apple’s chip success. 

How AMD & Nvidia lost their mobile GPU business, just like Intel

This one is more speculative IMO:

After eating Intel’s mobile lunch, Apple could next devour Qualcomm’s Baseband Processor business

And of course, the money quote:
Apple’s share of total smartphone industry profits grew to 94 percent during the September quarter, up from 85 percent one year ago.
The iPhone maker’s overwhelming share of all smartphone income comes despite Apple being second in smartphone volume shipments to all vendors collectively selling devices running some form of Android software.

2 thoughts on “The amazing story of Apple’s chips

  1. John Gruber, the prolific Apple blogger, has a lot to add to that analyst about the A9X outperforming Intel desktop CPUs.

    He points to a handful of benchmark tools and shows that it’s level with recent Apple laptops and even outperforms the Core i5-based Surface Pro 4.

    Quoting Gruber:

    “The iPad Pro is without question faster than the new one-port MacBook or the latest MacBook Airs. I’ve looked at several of my favorite benchmarks — Geekbench 3, Mozilla’s Kraken, and Google’s Octane 2 — and the iPad Pro is a race car. It’s only a hair slower than my year-old 13-inch MacBook Pro in single-core measurements. Graphics-wise, testing with GFXBench, it blows my MacBook Pro away. A one-year-old maxed-out MacBook Pro, rivaled by an iPad in performance benchmarks. Just think about that. According to Geekbench’s online results, the iPad Pro is faster in single-core testing than Microsoft’s new Surface Pro 4 with a Core-i5 processor. The Core-i7 version of the Surface Pro 4 isn’t shipping until December — that model will almost certainly test faster than the iPad Pro. But that’s a $1599 machine with an Intel x86 CPU. The iPad Pro starts at $799 and runs an ARM CPU — Apple’s A9X. There is no more trade-off. You don’t have to choose between the performance of x86 and the battery life of ARM.

    We’ve now reached an inflection point. The new MacBook is slower, gets worse battery life, and even its cheapest configuration costs $200 more than the top-of-the-line iPad Pro. The iPad Pro is more powerful, cheaper, has a better display, and gets better battery life.”

    I think his point about the “inflection point” is more about the average consumer than about CPU performance in particular, but even so, I think we have to be close.

    Given how OSX on Intel chips came to be (one guy, working in secret, which is still a thing today [see also: the Swift language]), one has to imagine that there’s a build of OSX running on ARM somewhere deep inside Apple.

  2. Blake, thanks for this. This quote is amazing ” It’s only a hair slower than my year-old 13-inch MacBook Pro in single-core measurements. Graphics-wise, testing with GFXBench, it blows my MacBook Pro away.”

    And this: absolutely. “one has to imagine that there’s a build of OSX running on ARM somewhere deep inside Apple.” I never knew that OSX on Intel was started by a single person.

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