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

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

15 thumbs up

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.

Article Index:

Prev 1 2 3 Next
0
+ -

@realneil

Well, there's two types of "getting it".  There's the "I'm smarter than you" type and the "I have a totally different perspective" type.  It's like someone saying, "I don't get why you collect cans... you only get a small amount of money from the recycling center." To which the person returns, "Well, every little bit helps.  I use it for pocket change."  The first person can shrug his shoulders and say "Ok. But, I'd never do that.  Doesn't make sense to me."

That doesn't mean one person is smarter... it just means they may have a different set of needs than the guy who doesn't find VALUE in what he's doing.

That brings us to the tablet.  I'm SUPER clear that while you scoff at any notion that Apple's is a "super-low" entry point, I have the numbers on my side. You can't show me anything else that does what the iPad's OS does with a capacitive multitouch screen UI... anywhere NEAR $500. The point is, you would like it to be a netbook and its not.  It's also not an ebook reader.  It's a different category that steals a little from both.  ebook readers can't run a spreadsheet program, but they have e-ink... netbooks don't currently offer the ease-of-use and multitouch UI the iPad offers... but they're mini-laptops that run desktop software, browsers, and in many cases can be expanded.  If the Amazon Kindle DX (with its accellerometer and larger 10" screen) is $489, why aren't people complaining that its ridiculously priced?  Because its not.  It also has (in my opinion) horrifying limitations that aren't out-weighed by the addition of "e-ink". 

Apple is suggesting that there is a category for "media readers" that don't end with ebooks.  They've put together an end-to-end solution that is state-of-art and pushes the envelope of GUI mobile experiences.  They are GAMBLING that by doing more than the Kindle (which requires abandoning e-ink for video-playback support), that they bring more people to the table.  Analysts are saying that this will work and that Apple will realize 5-10 million iPad sales this year.  --But, they say that most people who want ebook readers will still get ebook readers.  They're saying that Apple will likely eat away at the netbook market, at people who would probably get a netbook, but get sold on the iPad's value proposition (targeted uses and presentation).

I agree we should WAIT and SEE it (use it for ourselves) before we decide either way.  However, I already have an iPhone, and I'm surrounded by family that are picking up iPhone's left and right (and I'm not pushing ANYONE to get it, cause I don't care if they do or don't). People around me love the UI.  They "get it".  The next question is... will they go for an "appliance" product that has the same UI and begins to help them do more of what they would normally use a full-computer for.  That answer seems obvious to me.  If I carried my Bluetooth Apple keyboard and an iPad, most of my mobile computing needs are taken care of immediately with software like "Pages" and "Safari".  I have lots of PDF books I've been reading on my iPhone that are mocking me for a bigger screen, but the same rich user-experience.

0
+ -

I think the development level and mainly the A4 processor is the only real technological achievement of this item personally.

0
+ -

I also wonder what answer this will bring from Intel. If anyone else (IBM,AMD etc) makes a processor Intel has always answered sooner or later. The later part is also generally not there forte. So I will be interested to see if we will see another UL cpu or atom with enhanced capabilities or speed come out soon. This is also being that the snapdragon NEC Via etc units are also biting at Intel's pocket book on this sector as well. As I said and many of you already know Intel has always been rather aggressive. So I will be interested to see there answer here.

0
+ -

Intel has NO response to Apple's use of their own A4 chip.  That's really the crux of the matter.  Apple isn't trying to compete with Intel, they are simply choosing an approach that (if proven successful) their own competitors would be hard pressed to duplicate.  If Apple's competitors press Intel for a response, they will have one that is predictably as good or bad as that competitor's implementation of what Intel has provided. Apple's only excuse for doing this, is to differentiate itself in the market with a better, more highly optimized final product (by allowing the hardware, OS, and software to work in tight concert).  If, like with the PowerPC roadmap, this trajectory is deeply troubled by advanced developments from Intel, then Apple will gladly change lanes.  These kinds of decisions aren't usually for just the next product iteration however, they are always part of a larger roadmap they will have to live with for over a decade out.

0
+ -

I don't know the points you make are very valid, but even VIA got an answering chip. I guess though on this one the chip is so specialized that you right. In all reality it deserves no answer. I just think it's interesting Apple actually jumped in the chip business for this, especially on the first run. I think they should have kept developing it and then they may have had a valid answer. This chip although interesting I do no see as that answer.

0
+ -

"I think the development level and mainly the A4 processor is the only real technological achievement of this item personally." - rapid1

I'm not sure how much of a technical achievement the A4 CPU actually is, given that Apple purchased the company already creating chips for use by a number of clients. The A4 itself is new, but observers will be hard pressed to provide useful relative benchmarks for a chip inside of such a wholly proprietary environment. One useful metric will be when one compares benchmarking software on the iPhone 3Gs with the same benchmarking software on iPad and other devices (3D, rendering, movie playback, etc). However, this fails to account for realword scenarios and custom optimizations Apple may have in play.  You can have the best chip, but the worst drivers and/or APIs on a given OS.

iPad can comfortably sit in a class by itself, because it will be the only truly average consumer ready multitouch mobile OS on the market (queue youTube videos of babies using the iPhone).  Between now and its launch, HP will be working hard to replicate the level polish it had for its Touchsmart in a tablet format that matches the iPad's application and usability set. Apple is coming at the "solution" for the smartphone/computer tweener from a completely unchallenged direction that most competitors won't be able to quantify, never mind compete with.

 

0
+ -

lol that was great 3vi1

0
+ -

Dang that's vicious 3vi1 I love it getting ripped by college students classic and ripped hard.

0
+ -

3vi1:

 

+1 Big Smile

Haha, they must have come across your female hygiene joke!

Prev 1 2 3 Next
Login or Register to Comment
Post a Comment
Username:   Password: