iPad's Identity Crisis and Apple's A4 CPU Showstopper

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A few years back, Apple engaged in a rather quiet deal that enabled it to acquire P.A. Semi, which was a relatively unknown technology and engineering firm. To date, nothing has really come of the acquisition, but people have been opining on its significance ever since the transaction was completed. It's impossible to say if the P.A. Semi pickup had anything to do with Apple building a processor in-house for the iPad, but there's a decent chance some of the IP it purchased went into the development of this chip.



Apple describes the silicon that's powering this machine as a "1GHz Apple A4 custom-designed, high-performance, low-power system-on-a-chip." That's a lot of words, but essentially it's a super-low power chip designed to handle basic applications for extended lengths of time. You can tell from the one month standby estimate and the claim of 10 hours of video viewing that this chip isn't an energy hog, and frankly, those figures are astounding. Even the most long-lasting netbooks flicker out after 7 or 8 hours of intense usage, if you're lucky. We don't recall a similar device ever hitting the market with battery claims such as this, and there are really only a few things one can do to increase longevity. There are however many devices that could be coming, based on NVIDIA's competitive Tegra 2 platform that NVIDIA claims will offer 16 hours of HD video playback.  However, those devices aren't here yet and we have to hand it to Apple getting to market first with this class of capability in low power consumption.

Hardware-wise for the iPad, we already know that IPS LCD panels drain batteries fairly hard in mobile devices, as does video playback. The iPad's flash storage (versus traditional hard drives) certainly helps the power equation some, as does the lightweight OS instead of a full-on version of Mac OS X. Still, we have to believe that some of the magic lies in the silicon, and we'd be shocked if Apple didn't leverage that power-saving technology in some of its future devices. Or possibly even non-Apple devices, though that could be a reach.

The A4's Future -
Let's just ponder the possibilities for a moment. The iPad runs on iPhone OS. The iPad uses a 1GHz Apple A4. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to conclude that a next-generation iPhone, which would undoubtedly run iPhone OS, could easily run on a scaled-back version of the A4 chip, if space/heat issues are managed properly. Wouldn't Apple rather design its own chips for the next iPhone rather than relying on another supply chain? We can't say for certain, but considering just how much Jobs enjoys keeping things close to the vest, we bet the answer is "yes." Smartphones have already hit the 1GHz point. Qualcomm's Snapdragon chipset is making waves across the industry, and Toshiba's TG01 (which runs Windows Mobile 6.5) is already widely available in some parts of the globe with a 1GHz CPU. Having such power within a phone certainly makes sense, and given that Apple has already pushed its power plant once on its iPhone 3G when it introduced the iPhone 3GS, one would conclude that Apple is planning to bump the next-gen version as well.

Responsive with Cat-Like Reflexes -
Early reports from the event show floor indicate that the iPad has one of the smoothest, most responsive interfaces going. Many were enamored by the device's ability to flick from application to application, and we even heard some say that they couldn't get the iPad to lag regardless of what they tried. That speaks volumes. Even the mighty iPhone 3GS can be sluggish under the right circumstances, and as we've seen in our netbook reviews, even those machines can be ground to a halt with intense 1080p videos and first-person shooters. For a mobile computing device to honestly operate "lag-free" -- well, that historically has been a rarity, though NVIDIA again has enabled this platform for the better. Apple's A4 is obviously to thank for the iPad's snappy ways, but we can only hope that the chip is set free from being used in just a single product.

The Future Looks Bright In Steve's Shades -
Imagine if Apple were to really cut the A4 loose. What would the iPad look like then? We can even believe that Apple is pushing out the iPad with iPhone OS in order to just test the boundaries of the one-app-at-a-time approach, and it could then update the device with iPhone OS 4.0 later this year with multitasking enabled. Picture this: a next-gen iPhone powered by the A4, with multitasking enabled courtesy of iPhone OS 4.0. Obviously if that build of the OS would be ported to the iPad, and just like that, it would become entirely more capable. It's not that far-fetched. Apple is on a religious 2-year update cycle with the iPhone line, and that means a new model should be coming this summer. A new OS is almost guaranteed to launch alongside of it, and the culmination of all of this looks like the perfect time to introduce multitasking to its iPhone (and in turn, the iPad). Palm's webOS has had multitasking from day one, and it's about time Apple woke up and realized that it best improve in order to keep pace with one of its most serious competitors.


Future competitors waiting in the wings...

Aside from that, think about what the A4 could do for the tablet industry in general. The UMPC/MID world has struggled to find a decent CPU that could push high-res video, yet be energy efficient. The A4 could very well be a viable answer moving forward. It sounds far-fetched, but in these challenging, changing market dynamics, one can only guess how the A4 will be productized in future Apple efforts. We highly doubt that Apple spent millions of dollars and years of research producing a chip that's only meant for a single product. That just doesn't add up. The A4 could help restart the lagging MID/UMPC sector, and it could provide a second wind to a mobile computing industry that's growing old and tired due to a lack of real innovation.  Apple obviously has significant competition here though in the form of NVIDIA and Intel.  Not to mention, there would have to be a monumental cultural and mindset shift at Apple for this scenario to occur.



Unfortunately, we still can't properly benchmark and test the limits of the A4 while it's trapped within the iPad. We know already that it blazes through iPhone OS, and in the near term, our best hope is that Apple releases iPhone OS 4.0 with multitasking so that we get a good look at how the A4 manages multiple chores at once. If Apple ever releases the A4 to the masses though, watch out. A powerful, energy-efficient chip has plenty of places to go in today's market place: in-car entertainment centers, nettops, netbooks, point-of-sale machines, smartphones, MIDs, UMPCs, smartbooks, heads-up displays, advanced watches, GPS/PND units, tablets, slates, ultraportables...and the list goes on. We never really viewed Apple as a chipmaker before today, but who knows--maybe this iPad thing is just a cover-up for Apple's real intentions. Maybe the iPad is just a trial device to see how the A4 does in the real world. Here's hoping that we really get the see the full potential of the A4 outside of the iPad, as we think that there's plenty of shake-up that needs to be done in the mobile computing space and . You hear that, Mr. Atom?  We know Tegra-Man has been listening, that's for sure.

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This was actually one of the brightest things for me in the intro. I was expecting it to be running snapdragon, Tegra2, atom pinetrail, or even a VIA SOC. When he said it was on an Apple A4 chip I was intrigued. This as pointed out in this article could be substantial for the company. Where with the iPad in general I was disappointed after inspection.

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Yea, the iPad is rather underwhelming. That new chip sounds impressive tho!

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@rapid The A4 chip definitely looks to be one of the bright spots of this device. I would love to see some performance benchmarks on it, and matched up against some of the other chips you mentioned. As it is now, I'm very impressed with how energy efficient it is, without sacrificing performance. Looks like a possibility for the 4th generation iPhone.

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Yea gibbersome that's what I was getting to. For it to be that low energy, but still fluid in seen operation while transmitting to a large screen as well.

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rapid1:

Yea gibbersome that's what I was getting to. For it to be that low energy, but still fluid in seen operation while transmitting to a large screen as well.

 

I've also been thinking about what Apple decided to sacrifice for the battery life. And I think I understand why Apple decided to not support Flash, a known CPU-hogger. Multi-tasking was also perhaps excluded with the battery efficiency in mind. What Apple has done is create a very minimalist user interface. For those looking for a netbook replacement, they will be disappointed. It is (as many have stated) a giant Ipod Touch.

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There's a total problem with what you're saying, and its a shame you can't see it.  When the iPod and iPhone came out, they were "underwhelming" too.  People immediately claimed that Apple has screwed up, and that other products were better, faster, cooler.  Whether it was an HTC product or the LG Prada or the Helio Ocean, people thought the iPhone was overhyped and lackluster.  Same with the iPod if you remember that far back.  Here with the iPad, its a bit worse, because without looking closely, most uninformed observers want to point out that its an oversized iPod.  The truth however, is that the product was delayed specifically because of all the changes that were being mad to the underlying OS.  Moreover, updates to the iPhone were delayed do to cross-over with the code from this project that they did not want to leak.  Now, all can be revealed, and Apple can retain its development lead on all its competitors.  Don't listen to Steve Jobs comments on netbooks or the Kindle.  If you notice, he specifically said that netbooks FAIL at what they're trying to do (most people think of them as mini laptops).  Also, Jobs noted long ago that he thought the eReader class wasn't mainstream enough, because "People don't read books anymore".  His view was that it had to do MORE than an eReader... and yet retain the same simplicity. 

 

Would people pay MORE for a Kindle that did more (yet had a lower battery life)?  Good question.  That's the gamble.  That's why this is DIFFERENT, and that's why its either a complete failure, or the start of a revolution.  According to Steve Ballmer at CES this year, this year is the start of an emerging category... the Slate PC.  He described it exactly in the terms Jobs used.  He showed unannounced, unspeced models coming "soon" by HP, Pegatron, and Archos... in precisely the same form factor as Apple... but the problem is, these were NOT "revolutionary".  They were simply netbooks with touchscreens and no keyboards running Windows 7.  None of them were architected for touchscreen other than to be capable of doing it.  There were no "splitscreen" or "pop-over" systems, they did not have a library of touchscreen ONLY apps like the iPhone does.  They were netbooks without keyboards.  --And therein lies a tragic problem that even outstrips questions about battery life, cost, and other issues.

As Jobs said, and most people that used it, and appreciated what they were seeing have said... we (the rest of us) probably won't "get it" until we're holding one in our hands.  Until we truly feel how fast it is, and really see how it can affect our lives.  Like the iPhone, people will keep saying they want multitasking (and Jobs will translate that as "they want to do X task while doing Y task", without opening the entire device up), they'll say they want a camera (which may easily happen), and they'll say they thought it would run full MacOS software... at which point, it will be clear they don't get it.  The ModBook has been with us for a while.  Not many people want it... even for cheap.  People want a new consumer level appliance that's no where NEAR as complicated as a desktop OS.

This is what Apple has delivered, and yes... people like yourself will go on missing the point, while people like myself, John Gruber, Stephen Fry, and Michael Pusateri will insist that we're looking at an amazing 3rd repeat of history in terms of tech buzz.  When the revolutionary comes along, there is the urge not to notice it... even if people announce it boldly, and insist that you will soon understand what they already know.  That's just the nature of things.  Rarely do you get the perfect storm of a NEW product that changes everything... but came out of no where... and no one else is even in the same class.  Apple is now set to have done this many, many times (not without its G4 cubes, Newtons, and iPod HiFis though).  No one is perfect, but they really outdid themselves here.

Time will tell.

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"Time Will Tell"

Yes, it will, but with everyone else getting ready to announce their iteration of the Tablet, I for one will not bite the Apple in such a rush. The fact that it's a "minimalist" device could work either way for them and other manufacturers may produce a Tablet that is more fully featured and still has battery life that is acceptable.

Apple's allure is dependent on their support structure and development of 'Apps' for their devices. They give 'good commercial' too. They filled a marketing void when it was needed and were targeted towards younger people who were just coming into their financial well being.

The devices are only just so,so.

Oh,...and Yeah,....I just Don't 'Get It' either because I'm not clever.

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"Getting it" doesn't have to sound like a slight.  I personally think this is a tricky issue.  Maybe I'm the one not "getting" it.

Like I mentioned with the other form factor entrants coming in, "time will tell"... but that's most relevant, because NO ONE else has released specs or even a time to ship yet... so, they're hypothetical ideas right now that we "think" sound right.  So, everytime I hear someone say, "well, I'll just get one of these others" it seems odd to me. More like it should be a "boy, I wish someone would..." than anything else. 

It's not clear to me how "natural" Windows 7 would seem in an all-touch environment.  Look at the spreadsheet demo Apple gave.  Imagine doing that with Excel on Windows today. No dice. iPad is coming into the market in a class by itself chiefly because of the work on the OS (and how it handles touch).  Recently ASUS/Taiwanese manufacterer was reported as "scrambling" because of Apple's super-low entry point ($499).  They were thinking Apple would come in at $999, and had planned to undercut Apple by 20%-30%.  Now, there's no margin for that tactic.  Apple has aimed themselves at a different type of computing experience... not simply a repackaging of a desktop OS.  The question is... will it catch on, considering Apple has been "training" its customer base for this next step.

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No clever I actually agree with much that you say. One thing I don't think you see is the delay thing had nothing to do with anything except the A4 chip that this item runs on. Other than that it is an adaptation of the current platform in a larger and more inclusive model. Yes it is a over sized iPhone however there is absolutely nothing wrong with that from both a marketing view or stand point and a business one. So it basically rides that popularity adds to it and helps it grow even more.

One of my issues between the Steve Jobs Bill gates thing is the business model is very different on one point. Steve Jobs is very involved in the hardware end of everything for Apple. He is also a VERY smart man. Bill Gates on the other hand is an idea man on the software side of things as well as marketing and aim for a product he is a genius. The problem for Microsoft here is there Genius retired and is a philanthropist where Steve Jobs came back and is active rather than a commentator.

As for this  device and many of your arguments I understand them directly. As I said well before this item was ever seen even if I don't want one, mainly because I am a hardware nut is because I also cannot manipulate or suit this device directly to all my needs. However; as I stated this device is a very good thing, and I believe a market changer in a large way.

Much like the original iPhone the next version will have considerably expanded functionality. The big thing about this from a business stand point is the Apple app market that already exists. No one else has this or even anywhere close to it. This market also in many ways is open source at the bottom. You grab the Dk develop your app throw it to Apple they approve it or not. But the start point is open source basically. Much like Firefox you have thousand working and developing apps and plug ins for you for nothing. They only get something if the app is useful and in many ways just like Linux this changes the market I think in a very good way.

As I mentioned before I said well before this was introduced it is a market changer. Yes this type of device has been in and out of the market for years. However; I believe it was never take seriously or developed cohesively as a singular device type and market. The netbook gets party of it the UL notebooks do to with added functionality, the apple device in the end combines all available. It is a netbook, and er-eader, a UL notebook a cell phone or direct communications device and in a slate package which I thinks is considerably more useful.

This I think is done right because a slate device with totally new inclusiveness such as this has to be released. That is so we see how the market responds and what the market wants added to it. R&D in any case takes an aim even if it's imaginary. The other thing I think this will do is fastly gain a device type following which will extend cohesively across the market. I remember a year and a half b4 the iPhone existed I told a co-worker that b4 very long we would have a PC the size of you Cell phone. Then 1.5 to two tears after that first the i-phone and then the netbook hit the market. I have also said and even tried to patent an all inclusive device that incorporated and e-reader a cell phone with 3 or 4g connectivity and a netbook/UL in one package. However I was 1 month and 2 weeks late on it, and 3 patents were in b4 mine.

I basically dropped it there because I saw no point the parties that had it were I believe though do not know directly were Apple, MSI, and IBM/Lenovo and maybe Asus to. These companies have way  more resources than I could ever hope to have so it is pointless for me. I also think Nokia is developing something along these lines in a smaller package.

In the end this builds on the iPhone market which for a single specialized device is huge and insurmountable in my eyes. I actually question whether Apple rather than M$ will be in the same place in a few years because of there adoption of this expanded mobile market segment. I think in many ways they will be even because in the end for the general consumer there devices may be somewhat less all functional like the PC, but they are easier to use completely mobile, and stable. plus Apple is now developing both the hardware and software sides of there market as well which in a business sense gives them far more control.

Of course this is all basically a debate anyway we will see where it all goes!

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You said: "Getting it" doesn't have to sound like a slight".

But you made it sound like one with comments such as: "its a shame you can't see it" and "people like yourself will go on missing the point."

We're mostly saying that we'll wait to see what DOES come from other sources BEFORE we spend our money and that's just reality biting allot of people in the wallet considering the state of the economy and how it's affecting too many of us. Is it OK if we take a little time to choose?

Your: "Apple's super-low entry point ($499)" speaks volumes all by itself.

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