Apple iPad A4 Chip Designed by PA Semi Team... or Not?

Apple A4 chip

Venture Beat claims a "very trusted" source has informed them that Apple's PA Semi team might not have been behind the new iPad's Apple A4 chipset:

PA Semi didn’t do the A4. It was the existing VLSI team. Apple has made custom chips for years like the Northbridges for G4 and G5.

This information was appended to an article that focused on how great, and power-efficient, PA Semi's chip design really was. So why wouldn't Apple use them? Gizmodo speculates:

there likely isn't a whole lot "custom" going in the A4's actual design, which by all appearances is an ARM Cortex A9 wrapped up with a PowerVR graphics core and some other parts in a custom SoC. So, new question, if it's true: What's PA Semi, which Apple said would be working on chips for iPhones actually working on? A more customized chip would be interesting, since PA Semi's true talent was in designing chips with ridiculous power efficiencies.

So, we won't see PA Semi until... Apple A5?

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, Vector, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Apple iPad A4 Chip Designed by PA Semi Team... or Not?

13 Comments

I think the timing on the acquisition of PA Semi wasn't right for them to design the A4 from bottom-up, especially since the iPhone OS already runs on an ARM-architecture CPU. Further, ARM is pushing their newest chip designs and components very, very hard; they're not just trying to dominate the smartphone market, they're going after Intel, which is likewise hoping to scale down their Atom CPU for ARM-CPU territory.
I really think PA Semi's job is to prevent information leaks about components (think about how many times a third-party manufacturer has started rumors about Apple products recently); to build efficient chipsets out of whatever components make sense (including ARM components); and to build in protections that seal any portability issues (a different OS to Apple's hardware, or an iPad Hackintosh). If PA Semi can do those things, that would be enough in itself. I really doubt after the Motorola to Intel CPU switchover that Apple would want to get into a similar situation again.

Dennis
6:28pm
I think the timing on the acquisition of PA Semi wasn’t right for them to design the A4 from bottom-up, especially since the iPhone OS already runs on an ARM-architecture CPU. Further, ARM is pushing their newest chip designs and components very, very hard; they’re not just trying to dominate the smartphone market, they’re going after Intel, which is likewise hoping to scale down their Atom CPU for ARM-CPU territory.
I really think PA Semi’s job is to prevent information leaks about components (think about how many times a third-party manufacturer has started rumors about Apple products recently); to build efficient chipsets out of whatever components make sense (including ARM components); and to build in protections that seal any portability issues (a different OS to Apple’s hardware, or an iPad Hackintosh). If PA Semi can do those things, that would be enough in itself. I really doubt after the Motorola to Intel CPU switchover that Apple would want to get into a similar situation again.

Yes, sounds like some of us have jumped the gun with this speculation.
If the A4 is just a modified ARM chip with a few add-ons, then yes, the question is what are PA Semi working on...
Jaowseph has an interesting theory... but i'm not sure Apple would buy a company just to control information leaks.

@Anthony: That was actually my theory, which Jaowseph mysteriously quoted in full without leaving any comment. Anyway, it's not that Apple would want to buy a company just for one of the reasons I mentioned, but for all of them. There's also cost savings, of course, which I didn't mention. The theory I specifically don't think is plausible is that Apple is going to rely on a company to remain competitive in the CPU/GPU industry while it makes components only for Apple. There is a lot of competition between Intel and ARM for huge numbers of devices. The biggest problem in using chipsets with widespread utilization is the set of issues that came up when Apple switched to Intel CPUs in its computers: Boot Camp, Hackintoshes, and Psystar, for example. If Apple wants its own chipsets to prevent those kinds of problems, it also wants secrecy about the nature of its hardware for at least a long enough period to keep ahead of other companies. That's where the desire to suppress leaks comes in. It's one thing if the size and resolution of an LCD display on a planned product leaks, although that could be bad enough; it's another if its the chipset architecture.

Well, if the A4 design has no PA Semi input, then I would guess that they're working on the 2010 iPhone. The iPad is physically big enough to have quite a large battery, so maybe ultra-efficiency isn't as pressing. The iPhone will always have a small battery, so making its electronics as efficient as possible will always be high priority.
But longer-term, the PA Semi group could help to differentiate Apple even further from other computer and consumer electronics makers. A major reason for Apple's success is the integration between hardware and software. And the more control over both hardware and software Apple has, the better the integration can be. (There's the word 'control' again.)
Ultimately, better hardware/software integration enables a better user experience overall, and could lead to better power efficiency and better computing performance. All of this will add to Apple's leadership in hardware, software, integration, and user experience. (Not to mention the robust Apple ecosystem.)
In addition, I wouldn't be surprised if PA Semi is also, as Dennis suggests, working on making it either impossible or simply non-cost-effective to clone Macs. By putting proprietary chips of different kinds into Macs and other products, Apple could make it prohibitively expensive to reverse-engineer and copy their hardware.
Custom PA Semi chips in Apple products make it hard to clone the hardware. Custom-built software that only runs when those custom PA Semi chips are present makes it hard to hack the software to run on generic hardware.

The other question this raises is if the A4 is sooooo hot, why can't it handle multi-tasking and that other thing that begins with F.....?
How can you say you've got the wonderful ground breaking processor but then turn around and keep it chained to the dog house...

Well I would say it can do multitasking and flash. Considering a netbook which has a 1ghz processor can do it. I can understand them not putting flash on it. And could careless if they do or don't. But multitasking even though apps open and close quick I wouldn't mind having but wouldn't use that often on a iPhone or ipad. They did a poll on a site not sure which one but they asked people if and when apple puts multitasking on the iPhone or ipad what would you use it for? And 43% said for music. I'm assuming they mean pandora and stuff like that. As you can already use the iPod music while doing things. Anyway pretty stupid reason for all these people crying about multitasking.

@icebike: It can handle both. The reason why they don't do it is user experience. That is the thing they are focusing on, that is their business strategy, their differentiation. Average consumer user experience. And I think its a good strategy.
You may not like it, especially the average part, but bitching about it is not going to change it. You still have many possibilities to chose from. You can choose more integrated, but limited platform, or more open platform, but not so good in terms of user experience (which is of course subjective)
Flash. Oh Flash. Active-x of 2010. Problem of Flash is that is a closed standard in possession of one company. Majority of computer usage is for web now a flash is part of web. And it causes majority of web browser problems. And because its closed standard there is nothing Apple can do about it. It goes directly against their user experience strategy. They can fix their interpreter for HTML5 in Safari if there is a problem. But they cant for Flash, they have to wait for Adobe. That is why Apple wants to kill Flash, and rightly so.

The only things I would use multi tasking for is music streaming, VoIP and IM. Push solves IM though. Apple should be able to make exceptions for some apps like Pandora. Maybe restrict you to 2 background apps at a time so people don't end up with 10 apps in the background making the phone so slow you can't answer the phone before it goes to VM like on WinMo phones.

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