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

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The Apple A4 CPU and Its Future In Mobile Computing

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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