Apple's A6 Processor Uses Hand Drawn ARM Cores to Boost Performance

Subject: General Tech, Processors, Mobile | September 27, 2012 - 12:26 PM |
Tagged: SoC, PowerVR, iphone, arm, apple, a6

Apple's latest smartphone was unveiled earlier this month, and just about every feature has been analyzed extensively by reviewers and expounded upon by Apple. However, the one aspect that remains a mystery is the ARM System on a Chip that is powering the iPhone 5. There has been a great deal of speculation, but the officially Apple is not talking. The company has stated that the new processor is two times faster than its predecessor, but beyond that it will be up to reviewers to figure out what makes it tick.

After the press conference PC Perspective's Josh Walrath researched what few hints there were on the new A6 processor, and determined that there was a good chance it was an ARM Cortex A15-based design. Since then some tidbits of information have come out that suggest otherwise, however. Developers for iOS disovered that the latest SDK suggest new functionality for the A6 processor, including some new instruction sets. That discovery tended credence to the A6 possibly being Cortex A15, but it did not prove that it wasn't. Following that, Anandtech posted an article that stated it was in a licensed Cortex A15 design. Rather, the A6 was a custom Apple-developed chip that would, ideally, give users the same level of performance without needing significantly more power – and without waiting for a Cortex A15 chip to be manufactured.

Finally, thanks to the work of the enthusiasts over at Chipworks, we have physical proof that, finally, reveals details about Apple's A6 SoC. By stripping away the outer protective layers, and placing the A6 die under a powerful microscope, they managed to get an 'up close and personal' look at the inside of the chip.

Apple A6 ARM SoC.jpg

Despite the near-Jersey Shore (shudder) levels of drama between Apple and Samsung over the recent trade dress and patent infringement allegations, it seems that the two companies worked together to bring Apple's custom processor to market. The researchers determined that the A6 was based on Samsung's 32nm CMOS manufacturing process. It reads APL0589B01 on the inside, which suggests that it is of Apple's own design. Once the Chipworks team sliced open the processor further, they discovered proof that Apple really did craft a custom ARM processor.

In fact, Apple has created a chip with dual ARM CPU cores and three GPU cores (PowerVR). The CPU cores support the ARMv7s instruction set, and Apple has gone with a hand drawn design. Rather than employ computer libraries to automatically lay out the logic in the processor, Apple and the engineers acquired from its purchase of PA Semi have manually drawn out the processor by hand. This chip has likely been in the works for a couple of years now, and the 96.71mm^2 sized die will offer up some notable performance improvements.

microscope.jpg

It seems like Apple has opted to go for an expensive custom chip rather than opt for a licensed Cortex A15 design. That combined with the hand drawn layout should give Apple a processor with better performance than its past designs without requiring significantly more power.

At a time when mobile SoC giant Texas Instruments is giving up on ARM chips for tablets and smartphones, and hand drawn designs are becoming increasingly rare (even AMD has given up), I have to give Apple props for going with a custom processor laid out by hand. I'm interested to see what the company is able to do with it and where they will go from here. 

Chipworks and iFixIt also took a look at the LTE modem, Wi-Fi chip, audio amplifier, and other aspects of the iPhone 5's internals, and it is definitely worth a read for the impressive imagery alone.

Source: ifixit

GLOBALFOUNDRIES goes 3D with 14nm FinFET transistors

Subject: General Tech | September 21, 2012 - 01:58 PM |
Tagged: 14nm, FinFET, 3d transistors, GLOBALFOUNDRIES, SoC

Intel was first out of the gate with their 3D transistors, which they dubbed Tri-gate and which the rest of the world refers to as FinFET as the normal 2D transistor is flipped on its side in a position reminiscent of a fin.  This leads to much more efficient power usage, perfect for mobile designs and needed as the transistor density at 14nm is going to be quite high.  GLOFO's 14nm eXtreme Mobility will work in conjunction with the current 20nm process used to fabricate SOCs and will be the basis of many lines of chips, such as ARM who have signed a multiyear contract with GLOFO.  Check out DigiTimes for more.

14launchlanding_sn3.jpg

"Globalfoundries has announced the launch of a new technology designed for the expanding mobile market. The new 14nm-XM offering will give customers the performance and power benefits of three-dimensional "FinFET" transistors with less risk and a faster time-to-market, helping the fabless ecosystem maintain its leadership in mobility while enabling a new generation of smart mobile devices, according to the foundry."

Here is some more Tech News from around the web:

Tech Talk

Source: DigiTimes

Podcast #218 - Gigabyte Z77X-UD7, Apple A6 SoC, Thunderbolt GPU Tech from Lucid, and more!

Subject: General Tech | September 13, 2012 - 04:53 PM |
Tagged: z77x-ud7, z77n-wifi, WD, thunderbolt, SoC, podcast, lucid, idf 2012, Hybrid Drive, haswell, gpu, gigabyte, arm, a6

PC Perspective Podcast #218 - 09/13/2012

Join us this week as we talk about the Gigabyte Z77X-UD7, Apple A6 SoC, Thunderbolt GPU Tech from Lucid, and more!

You can subscribe to us through iTunes and you can still access it directly through the RSS page HERE.

The URL for the podcast is: http://pcper.com/podcast - Share with your friends!

  • iTunes - Subscribe to the podcast directly through the iTunes Store
  • RSS - Subscribe through your regular RSS reader
  • MP3 - Direct download link to the MP3 file

Hosts: Josh Walrath, Jeremy Hellstrom, Allyn Malvantano and Scott Michaud

This Podcast is brought to you by MSI!

Program length: 1:01:33

Podcast topics of discussion:

  1. Week in Reviews:
    1. 0:02:50 Live Recap: Gigabyte Z77X-UP7 & Z77N-Wifi Preview
    2. 0:11:11 Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Review
    3. 0:16:20 Apple A6 SOC: Cortex A15 Hits the Market
    4. 0:21:30 IDF 2012: Intel Haswell Architecture Revealed
      1. Intel Haswell CPUs as low as 10W TDP
  2. 0:28:05 This Podcast is brought to you by MSI!
  3. News items of interest:
    1. 0:28:45 IDF 2012: Lucid External GPUs?
    2. 0:32:05 IDF 2012: Intel Dives in to Oil!
    3. 0:35:45 IDF 2012: Western Digital Hybrid Hard Drives - 5mm 500GB
    4. 0:38:00 AMD Steamroller -- Shrunk Die Without a Die Shrink?
    5. 0:39:50 Firefox OS Interface: Sept 6, 2012.
    6. 0:42:30 CiiNow Sounds Like Wii... also AMD Investment.
    7. 0:47:15 Valve Big Picture Mode for Steam
  4. Closing:
    1. 0:50:36 Hardware / Software Pick of the Week
      1. Jeremy: SLI\CrossFire PSU for dirt cheap, NewEgg not quite so good
      2. Josh: Not terrible. Hopefully it actually works for the S3
      3. Allyn: WD MyBook VelociRaptor Duo
      4. Scott: Back to school? For the love of God, laser printers.
  1. 1-888-38-PCPER or podcast@pcper.com
  2. http://pcper.com/podcast
  3. http://twitter.com/ryanshrout and http://twitter.com/pcper
  4. Closing/outro

 

Kontron Readying Mini-ITX Form Factor ARM System

Subject: General Tech | July 14, 2012 - 02:39 PM |
Tagged: quad core, arm, SoC, Android, xbmc, htpc, mini-itx

This week has been rife with ARM computers. The latest ARM system comes in the form of a mini-ITX form factor motherboard and quad core ARM processor combination from embedded system manufacturer Kontron. Named the KTT30/mITX, it measures 17 cm x 17 cm, the little motherboard provides a plethora of IO ports and the relatively short (depth-wise) motherboard would be great in a HTPC box, assuming the software is there (an XBMC release ported over from the Raspberry Pi build would be nice to see, for example).

kontron.jpeg

The motherboard is paired with a quad core ARM Cortex A9 processor running at 900 MHz, video hardware acceleration coprocessor, and up to 2GB of DDR3L memory. It is reportedly capable of playing back 1080p H.264 videos. Internal connectors include two SD card clots, a SIM card socket, and two mPCIe connectors. Rear board IO includes three USB 2.0 ports (one micro, two regular-sized type A), an HDMI port, Gigabit Ethernet NIC, S/PDIF audio, two RS232 serial ports, and three analog audio output jacks.

It looks like a neat little board, though only if the price is right. If it is prohibitively expensive, it may be bumping up against AMD’s APU and accompanying motherboards. And because the APUs can utilize x86-64 software, that is a big positive in its favor. With that said, if this board is cheap enough, it could make sense as the base of a cheap HTPC.

Read more about the Mini-ITX ARM-powered system over at Fanless Tech.

Source: Fanless Tech

Has Atom finally found its home ... in cell phones?

Subject: General Tech | June 21, 2012 - 01:43 PM |
Tagged: Medfield, SoC, atom z2460

Intel will be focusing a lot of attention on the mobile phone market this year, already they have started in Asia but hopefully it won't be too long until we start to see them here in North America.  Currently their Medfield SoC is fabbed on the 32nm process but we can expect to see 22nm chips with lower power consumption in the very new feature.  Companies unfamiliar to the West, such as Lava, Orange and ZTE are already either selling a phone or are about to release one, but those do not define the limits of the market.  DigiTimes describes their plans for the coming year as aggressive but with ARM already deeply entrenched in this market we have yet to see if this is the market where Atom will really find a successful niche.

 

intel-atom-z2460.jpg

"Intel's Medfield platform-based smartphones have recently received attention from handset players and telecom carriers such as Orange, Lenovo, Motorola Mobility, ZTE and India-based Lava International.

Lava International already launched its 4.03-inch Xolo X900, featuring Atom Z2460 processor (1.6GHz), 1GB memory, 16GB storage capacity, 8-megapixel camera and a battery that allows users to connect to the Internet through 3G for five hours and talk for eight hours. The smartphone is priced around US$400."

Here is some more Tech News from around the web:

Tech Talk

 

Source: DigiTimes

Samsung Teases Exynos 4 Quad Core Mobile Processor

Subject: General Tech | April 26, 2012 - 11:47 PM |
Tagged: SoC, Samsung, quad core, galaxy s 3, Exynos 4, Android

Samsung has an event scheduled for May 3rd called Mobile Unpacked where it will be unveiling their latest Galaxy series smartphone. It seems as if the company was too excited about the new hardware to wait because they have teased small bits of information on the processor. The new chip has been named the Exynos 4 and is a quad core processor running at 1.4 GHz.

img_4quad_1.png

Based on a 32nm HKMG (High-K Metal Gate) process node, Samsung claims the SoC uses 20% less power than it’s 45nm predecessors. The quad core processor is more power efficient thanks to the lower process node and the ability of the chip to turn individual cores off when not in use. As far as performance, the company claims the new quad core part is twice as fast as the older dual core 45nm chips. The Exynos 4 also has an integrated image signal processor for high quality camera processing and support for multi format codec (MFC) decoding. The MFC engine allows the chip to process a variety of 1080p HD video files.

A few things that are noticeably absent from the Samsung product page include any specific performance numbers, architecture details, and benchmarks. Samsung is keeping a tight lid on that information until the release but once reviewers get their hands on the Galaxy III independent benchmarks are soon to follow. The comparison between the Exynos 4 and NVIDIA’s Tegra 3 should be interesting.

Source: Samsung

NVIDIA Tegra 4 Specifications Sheet Leaks

Subject: General Tech, Mobile | April 7, 2012 - 07:11 PM |
Tagged: tegra 4, tegra, SoC, nvidia, mobile

The Chinese language VR-Zone website has allegedly managed to get their hands on a leaked specifications sheet for NVIDIA’s upcoming Tegra 4 System-on-a-chip (SoC) aimed at mobile tablets. Codenamed “Wayne,” the new SoC will come in several flavors and will arrive next year.

The upcoming chips will have 10x the performance of NVIDIA’s original Tegra and five times the performance of the current generation Kal-El Tegra 3 chip. NVIDIA has run into several hurdles in integrating an LTE cell radio into their SoCs, but if the leaked document is true, the company will finally release a Tegra chp with built-in LTE 100 and HSPA42 cell radio capabilities as early as the third quarter of 2013.

Badge_Tegra_3D_large.jpg

Further, the Tegra 4 SoCs will come in four flavors: T40, T43, AP40, and SP3X. T40 will represent the first Tegra 4 chp that manufacturers and consumers will be able to get their hands on -- as early as Q1 2013. It is a quad core part with one companion core and will run at 1.8 GHz. T43 is an evolution of the T40 and will bump up the clockspeed to 2.0 GHz. The AP40 chip will be the first budget Tegra 4 processor and will run anywhere between 1.2 GHz and 1.8 GHz. The T43 and AP40 SoCs are reportedly coming out in Q3 2013. All three chips -- The T40, T43, and AP40 -- are based on the ARM Cortex A15 architecture.

  T40 T43 AP40 SP3X
Release Date Q1 2013 Q3 2013 Q3 2013 Q3 2013
Markets Aimed At Flagship Flagship Mainstream Mainstream
Tablet Device Screen Size 10" 10" 10" 7"
Processor Clockspeed 1.8 GHz 2.0 GHz 1.2-1.8 GHz 1.2-2.0 GHz
Core Count 4+1 4+1 4+1 4+1
Chip Architecture A15 A15 A15 A9
Cell Radio       LTE100/HSPA42

 

The final Tegra 4 chip is called SP3X, and it will arrive in Q3 2013. Aimed at mainstream tablets with 7” or smaller screens, the upcoming SoC will feature LTE support and will have a clockspeed of 1.2 GHz to 2.0 GHz. It is a quad core (plus one companion core) part but is reportedly based on the ARM Cortex A9 architecture.  The leaked release dates do seem to be in line with earlier reports, though they should still be taken with your daily dose of salt.

 

Right now Tegra delivers on performance and many high end mobile devices have incorporated the NVIDIA chip. Even so, they still have very little market share, and the two mainstream Tegra 4 chips -- especially the SP3X with LTE radio -- should help them make inroads against Qualcomm and Samsung who hold a great deal of market share.

MWC 12: Intel branded, Atom-powered smartphone to be sold by Orange

Subject: Mobile | February 26, 2012 - 08:06 PM |
Tagged: z2460, SoC, smartphone, orange, MWC 12, MWC, Intel, atom z2460

Reuters is reporting that European cell phone carrier Orange will be selling a reference design Medfield smartphone under the Intel brand name.  The Atom Z2460 SoC will find its first major distributor to be one of the world's largest service providers - this could potentially be a big opening for Intel in a market it desperately wants to compete for.

intelorange1.png

I find it very interesting that not only has Intel developed a processor that has finally garnered attention for the mobile market but the team at Intel has built a reference design that was fine tuned enough to direct sell to consumers.  Will the company avoid becoming a typical, low margin SoC company by focusing on vertical implementations like this one?  It is an interesting thought and no other vendor has really done it, with possibly the exception of Samsung that owns the entire device process already.

Anandtech has the major specifications of the phone, codenamed "Santa Clara":

intelorange2.png

These are basically identical to the reference design we saw at CES with only some minor changes to the form factor.  Ice Cream Sandwich isn't included out the gate but we are hoping the upgrade will get pushed soon since Intel showed ICS on the Atom SoC in January.

I haven't been able to find anything about availability or pricing yet but I'll be sure to report it when I find it.  The mobile market continues to intrigue...

Source: Reuters

WonderMedia Announces PRIZM WM8950 with Android 4.0 Support

Subject: Processors, Mobile | January 5, 2012 - 01:47 PM |
Tagged: WonderMedia, PRIZM WM8950, SoC, arm, cortex-a9

Taipei, Taiwan, January 5, 2012 -WonderMedia Technologies, Inc, a leading innovator of energy-efficient, feature-rich system-on-chip platforms, today announced the WonderMedia PRIZM WM8950 SoC.Combining a highly energy-efficient ARM Cortex-A9 core running at 800MHz with advanced graphics and stunning 1080p video playback capabilities, the WonderMedia PRIZM WM8950 further extends WonderMedia's leadership in the fast-growing Android media tablet market.

284.jpg

Prizm WM8950The next generation WonderMedia PRIZM platform and software suite provides customers an easy migration path to a Cortex-A9 SoC and offers support for the latest Android 4.0 and Windows CE 7.0 operating systems. With its high-performance, and feature-rich design, the WM8950 is also optimized for a wide range of innovative system design applications, including smartbooks, Smart TV, SmartStream for wireless display and multimedia streaming, networked projectors, digital signage, and thin clients.

"Our line of PRIZM platforms has spurred the explosive growth in the Android media tablet market," commented Tzumu Lin, President and CEO, WonderMedia Technologies, Inc. "The new WM8950 delivers greater computing power and richer multimedia experiences to meet the ever growing global demand for affordable smart mobile devices."

wm8950-blkgram.jpg

PRIZM WM8950 Highlights:

  • 800MHz ARM Cortex-A9 processor
  • ARM Mali-400 3D graphics Processor
  • Multi-standard 1080p video decoding engine
  • H.264 video encoding
  • DDR3/LPDDR2 DRAM interface
  • Multiple video interface including HDMI, LVDS, and DVO
  • Flexible networking and peripheral interface
  • Advanced hardware security engine
  • Android 4.0 and Windows CE7.0 support

Intel Medfield x86 SoC Targets Android Phones and Tablets

Subject: Processors, Mobile | December 26, 2011 - 01:44 PM |
Tagged: Intel, Medfield, Android, x86, SoC

Intel hopes that 2012 will finally be the year they see mainstream phones with Intel inside.  Despite Intel's attempts to tell us otherwise for the past several generations, the upcoming Medfield design is the first truly serious attempt to enter the phone and tablet market currently dominated by the many ARM-based partners of phone manufacturers all over the world.  A recent post over at Technology Review discussed the advantages that Medfield offers over previous Intel Atom-based designs with Steve Smith, Intel's VP of Architecture.

First shown at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco this past September, a Medfield-based reference design has many believing in what some thought was impossible but what others thought was inevitable: Intel x86 cores in a phone that matters.  Why the change from many in the analyst space?  Medfield is the first option from Intel that is truly a single-chip solution, removing design space concerns and power consumption issues that previous Atom-architecture solutions were saddled with. 

intel_phone_x616.jpg

Intel showed Technology Review the Android-based reference phone running Gingerbread.

The phone prototype seen by Technology Review was similar in dimensions to the iPhone 4 but noticeably lighter, probably because the case was made with more plastic and less glass and metal. It was running the version of Google's operating system shipping with most Android phones today, known as Gingerbread; a newer version, Ice Cream Sandwich, was released by Google only about a month ago.

Intel has a lot of experience in the consumer markets though it took a shift inside the company to really put the focus on phones and tablets over netbooks and convertible-notebooks.  At the recent showing not only did they have the reference design phone but also an iPad-like tablet device running Ice Cream Sandwich, another key to the consumer's dollar.  And as you can clearly see in the diagram below, there is a lot of money being made that Intel wants in on.  A LOT.

intel_phone_chart.jpg

Source: Technology Review, IDC

Intel will also enjoy a process technology advantage over the competition with current Medfield SoCs built on the company's internal 32nm process and the upcoming 22nm technology promises even more power consumption advantanges.  ARM designs are built at different foundries including Samsung and TSMC and while they are competitive, no one can keep up with Intel on this front. 

Anandtech also had some interesting information to share from an investor conference earlier this month about the power consumption and performance levels of Medfield. 

intel_phone_power.png

Source: Anandtech.com

The diagram shows that power consumption on Medfield should be competitive with the current ARM-based SoC leaders in the market today.  Areas like 3G standby, basic audio playback and video playback should be accomplished with minimal power draw in order to have battery life extended to at least current expectations.  The performance graphs here on Browser Mark and "Graphics" are impressive as well though obviously we have a TON of missing information to really make the graph meaningful.  Anand puts it well:

Barring any outright deception however, there seems to be potential in Medfield.

I tend to believe that Intel is too smart to misjudge a product to investors, but remember how impressive the initial performance results of Larrabee were for years? 

I am hopeful and excited for Intel's mobility plans in 2012 as other information we have seen looks impressive.  Let's see what CES has to offer.