Contemplating an Apple A5 system-on-chip

Last year Apple introduced their own 1Ghz Apple A4 system-on-chip (SoC) alongside the iPad and if recent rumors are to be believed we might just see the next generation -- perhaps called Apple A5 -- this year alongside iPad 2.

While Apple has never released the component specs for the Apple A4, it's accepted as being an Apple designed, Samsung fabricated ARM Cortex A8 CPU with Imagination PowerVR SGX GPU. That combination was fast on the iPhone 3GS and it was even faster, thanks in part to Intrisity's clock-speed know how, on iPad, iPhone 4, iPod touch 4, and Apple TV (2010). So what would an Apple A5 look like?

The successors to both CPU and GPU were first announced in early 2010 -- the dual-core ARM Cortex A9 and Imagination PowerVR SGX543/545 series. Apple didn't use either last year but, again if recent rumors are to be believed, they could very well be using them this year.

We've heard that Apple has been telling developers for at least a year now to think about making their apps multicore aware (they can already be multithread aware). Mac and Windows PCs have been dual and multicore aware for a while. It would no doubt lead to performance improvements in some areas, though power consumption would likely be an equal and opposing reaction (especially in early generation mobile dual-core procs). Android phones are going dual core in a big way this year so the technology is definitely productized.

Add in a smoking fast graphics engine and iOS, with support for OpenGL ES 2.x and OpenGL 3.2, should be able to push pixels like nobody's business. If Apple TV finally goes 1080p and iPad 2 really does get a higher resolution display that kind of power will be put to good use. Given Apple's investment in OpenCL, which lets GPU assist CPU when not otherwise occupied, and we literally have the makings of melt-in-your-pocket processing power in mobile.

What we haven't heard so far -- and we desperately need to hear about -- is more RAM to go along with all that power. iPad and iPod touch (2010) feel positively anemic at 256MB compared to iPhone 4's 512MB but all of them could really shine with 1GB. Apple will want to keep prices in line with last year -- $499 starting price for iPad 2 Wi-Fi -- but RAM is no longer where cost cutting should apply.

Now it's fair to ask if we really need all that power and performance in what's essentially a pocket device -- or at least portable in iPad's case. After all, iPhone 4 is buttery smooth with the current Apple A4 SoC. Would Apple be better off sticking with A4 and coaxing even more battery life out of it?

They may. They're notoriously conservative at times (like with RAM!). I think the next generation of iOS 5 software and apps will really be able to make use of improved internals. We could see a whole new class of innovation, from video and image processing to games on the Unreal 3 Engine (and similar) to real-time augmented reality apps. And if there's one thing Apple does care about, it's software. (That's why they build all this hardware to begin with.)