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Why Apple A10 leads the mobile chipset industry

I've been talking about Apple's silicon advantage for a few years now but it still doesn't get the recognition is really deserves. Johny Sjrouji's hardware technology team has brought Apple from nowhere to become the best chip designers in mobile — and arguably beyond — and there's no sign of them slowing down. If anything, Apple is spending the money to let them run as fast as they possibly can. Look no further than iPhone 7's HURRICANE.zephyr.

From the Linley Group:

The massive Hurricane CPU improves performance by 35% over the previous-generation Twister, boosting both the clock speed and the per-clock performance. The smaller Zephyr CPU helps the iPhone 7 extend battery life compared with its predecessor.

That's the advantage of the big.LITTLE design. With the standard design, when performance improves to a certain point, you lose efficiency on the low end. Hurricane can go high because Zephyr's there to fill in the low.

Part of Apple's advantage is its ability to spend money. Die area is expensive for a processor built in leading-edge 16nm FinFET technology, and Hurricane uses plenty of it. A single Hurricane CPU measures 4.18mm2, about twice the size of other high-end mobile CPUs. Because Apple sells phones, not chips, adding a few dollars of die cost is of little importance if the resulting high performance enables it to sell more $600 products.

In other words, Qualcomm has to sell its chips, which is a limiting factor. Apple doesn't. Apple also doesn't have to support multiple architectures or vendors. They can build exactly what they need and match the atoms to the bits.

The second new CPU core in the A10 is appropriately code-named Zephyr (a light breeze). It's much smaller than Hurricane, suggesting that it uses a simpler microarchitecture. The die photo shows it has 32KB instruction and data caches instead of the 64KB caches in Hurricane. Excluding cache, however, Zephyr is nearly twice as large as Cortex-A53, indicating it's more complex than that design.

Barron's report adds:

Gwennap ends on an ominous note for Intel: "Apple's CPU prowess is beginning to rival Intel's. In fact, the new Hurricane could easily support products such as the MacBook Air that today use lower-speed Intel chips."

ARM-based Macs have been rumored for years. What I'm really curious about, though, is to see where Apple takes the silicon next. The possibilities are intriguing to say the least.

Of course, they're running low on wind-inspired codenames. On behalf of Canada, I'd like to offer BLIZZARD.flurry.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

28 Comments
  • I still think that the only guys that can possibly match Apple (provide competition, you said yourself competition is good) is Samsung with its Exynos chips. The S7 devices with Exynos are superior to the Qualcomm variant. I can't wait to see the next generation!
  • Exynos is good. More phone manufacturers need to focus on using just a couple of variations of internals which would probably make it easier to focus on getting the most out of every phone. Sent from the iMore App
  • Now that Google is entering the hardware, will be interesting to see if they try and develop their own custom chips like what Apple does. Outside of Samsung, there isn't much competition from OEMs who make phones and their own chips.
  • "Of course, they're running low on wind-inspired codenames. On behalf of Canada, I'd like to offer BLIZZARD.flurry." Yes. *stares out window at pre-Halloween snow fall*
  • Ha ha ha, for sure. Next week we are looking at 10-15cm. I don't even have my snow tires on yet. They could also use snowsqaul, blow me down (famous Newfoundland mountain range), and Noreaster ha ha!
  • "In fact, the new Hurricane could easily support products such as the MacBook Air that today use lower-speed Intel chips" - heh. as long as the Mac users only run Geekbench.
  • I'm not sure what you're trying to suggest?
  • that other benchmarks put the a series of chips much slower than anything intel makes. makes you wonder how fast the arms chips really are when compared to x86
  • Mac users know what to run, how to run. Such wishes just reflect the frustration of Windows users trying to deal with the culture shock they experienced with the spectacular failure of Windows RT and Surface RT. They hopelessly try to pursue their failed ARM dreams on the Mac platform.
  • You always like to see a figure of the incredible hulk in the image.
  • Speed is amazing works really fast. Sent from the iMore App
  • Meh. I see the fanfare on Apple processors year after year, and ask myself, so what? What, exactly, does any of this matter today? All high-end smartphones are now more powerful than what their users can throw at them. A top-end 2016 Android phone can multitask in split windows -- something no iPhone can do -- without the slightest lag or performance penalty. So who cares, really, if A10 outperforms some Qualcomm chipset on some benchmark? I bet one could replace the A10 in iP7 with last year's A9, and the average user would not even notice. But what if Apple spent even a fraction of this R&D money on, say, fixing the god-awful, dangerously-inaccurate Maps app or the always-wrong weather app or, who knows, taking Siri up to par with Google Now, or, you know, anything that actually matters to the user? Would that be too unsexy and unmarketable?
  • Faster chips are important for future-proofing. Yes, the average user may not take advantage of the chipset now, but what if you're buying a phone which you will hang on to for two years plus? By OEMs putting in chips that are 'over-qualified', then customers have the peace of mind that their phones aren't going to run like junk in three years time, when greater demands are put on them due to increasingly complex apps/games. Oh, and the Maps app has come on in leaps and bounds since it's awful debut, and I have never seen the Weather app be anything less than accurate. You may have a point about Siri though.
  • Maps is tons better nowadays, no point complaining about it without saying where IN THE ENTIRE WORLD you are.. Weather app depends on the source, which obviously is not Apple And things like Siri do depend on processing speed, which is what you were arguing against!
  • Most Android phones sold are cheap $200 glorified featurephones like the Moto G that are 5x to 10x slower than Apple's iPhones and even high-end Android phones are significantly slower than the iPhone.  You pay for what you get. AnTuTu (higher is better)
    iPhone 7 Plus = 179,811
    Samsung Galaxy S7 = 134,000
    HTC 10 = 131,088
    Nexus 6P = 60,007
    Moto G = 17,014 GeekBench:
    DEVICE................SINGLE-CORE.......MULTI-CORE
    iPhone 7/7 Plus.................3,450.......5,630
    Samsung Galaxy S7..........1,806.......5,213
    Samsung Galaxy Note 7....1,786......5,228
    Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge..1,744......5,203
    Huawei P9 ..........................1,729......4,735
    OnePlus 3............................1,698......4,015
    Google Pixel………………...1,648……4,121
    Moto G 2015………………….428……1,070 GFXBench T-Rex HD on-screen (higher is better)
    iPhone 7 Plus = 58.2 fps
    Samsung Galaxy S7 = 53 fps
    HTC 10 = 47 fps
    Nexus 6P = 36 fps
    Moto G = 11 fps GFXBench Manhattan on-screen (higher is better)
    iPhone 7 = 59.1 fps
    Samsung Galaxy S7 = 29 fps
    HTC 10 = 13 fps
    Nexus 6P = 17 fps
    Moto G = 3.9 fps Basemark OS II Overall
    iPhone 7 = 3,862
    Samsung Galaxy S7 = 1,943
    HTC 10 = 1,806
    Nexus 6P = 1,894
    Moto G = 581
  • I'm an iPhone user but in fairness, some of those Android phones are having to push more pixels than the iPhone 7 which affects their scores.
  • That's only for GPU-related benchmarks though, CPU benchmarks will be the same regardless of the screen resolution, and iPhone still wins
  • It's pretty easy for Apple's chips to outperform their Qualcomm equivalents on Android when Apple's A series chips are doing much work because they're not using a 2K or 4K screen. Let's see Apple put a 2K screen on an iPhone and watch it lag. I used to buy it to all this BS about Apple's chips being "all powerful" but the reality is its a con when you're using a cheap LCD 1080p screen and a laughable 750p screen in 2016. Sent from the iMore App
  • Off s teen benchmarks still have the A10 leading by significant margins. What you're staying makes no sense and doesn't matter. 1080p makes sense on a 5.5" screen.
  • Looking side by side, there's a huge difference. But the subject is in the eyes of the beholder. Sent from the iMore App
  • No, at normal viewing distances you can't see any difference. The 401 ppi of the iPhone 7 plus screen is well beyond what the human retina can resolve in day to day usage. The pointless spec wars that Android manufacturers have to engage in is a self-defeating attempt at differentiating their phones from competitors with useless bullet points on the spec listing. As all the benchmarks demonstrate, the negative outcome of these QuadHD screens is lower battery life and slower graphics performance having to move so many unwarranted pixels around.
  • "1080p makes sense on a 5.5 inch screen" until you've used an S7 Edge or every other Android phone. Apple is being cheap to its users by continuing to use LCD which is dated and while the iPhone 8 will use OLED, it still won't measure up to Samsung's beautiful Super AMOLED display. Sent from the iMore App
  • Apparently you can see into the future and know exactly what the iPhone 8 screen is going to look like. Please, tell me of the secret to your mystical powers!
  • Never thought I would ever hear something like that from you. Wow.... I'm floored. Sent from the iMore App
  • That's because I've woke up to the fact that Apple is ripping people off peddling old tech and now having held the Galaxy S7 Edge, I'm in love with thd design and I'm in no doubt I'm switching to Android and Samsung for good. I was blinded by Apple but not anymore. Sent from the iMore App
  • The only part of the iPhone 7 tech that is old is the screen, I'm disappointed by the screen too, but the rest is all the latest technology
  • Can't wait for the day when another chip outdoes Apple again and suddenly benchmarks won't matter because Apple is behind. Has happened before. Such a double standard. Posted from my Nexus 6P
  • I can understand your disappointment since the Nexus 6P scores poorly on those benchmarks (Mostly just pulling your leg . . . mostly)