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macintosh technology

Apple admits to eating ‘iPad chip designer’ • The Register

Last year, Samsung told the world it had teamed with Instrinsity on a 1GHz ARM chip known as the Hummingbird, and Samsung manufactures the ARM chips underpinning the Apple iPhone, a smaller version of the iPad. This has led many to assume that the Hummingbird architecture is the basis for the the A4.

via Apple admits to eating ‘iPad chip designer’ • The Register.

I am sure that Apple’s ability to act quickly and independently helped win them not just design expertise, but an actual nearly finished CPU in the form of the Hummingbird project. There does now seem to be a smartphone Megahertz War similar to the bad old days of desktop computing when AMD and Intel fought it out 1 gigahertz at a time. We will see what comes of this when the new iPhones come out this Summer. A4 may not translate into a handheld cpu form factor. But looking at the iFixit teardown of the iPad makes me think the iPad motherboard is almost the size of a cell phone! So who knows, maybe A4 is scalable down to iPhone as well. We’ll find out in June I’m sure when Apple hosts its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco, CA.

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computers macintosh technology

AppleInsider | Inside the iPad: Apples A4 processor

Another report, appearing in The New York Times in February, stated that Apple, Nvidia and Qualcomm were all working to develop their own ARM-based chips before noting that “it can cost these companies about $1 billion to create a smartphone chip from scratch.” Developing an SoC based on licensed ARM designs is not “creating a chip from scratch,” and does not cost $1 billion, but the article set off a flurry of reports that said Apple has spent $1 billion on the A4.

via AppleInsider | Inside the iPad: Apples A4 processor.

Thankyou AppleInsider for trying to set the record straight. I doubted the veracity of the NYTimes article when I saw that $1Billion figure thrown around (seems more like the price of a Intel chip development project which is usually from scratch). And knowing now from this article here (link to PA Semi historical account), that PA Semi made a laptop version of a dual core G5 chip, leads me to believe power savings is something they would be brilliant at engineering solutions for (G5 was a heat monster, meaning electrical power use was large). P.A. Semi was going to made the G5 power efficient enough to fit into a laptop and they did it, but Apple had already migrated to Intel chips for its laptops.

Intrinsity + P.A. Semiconductor  + Apple = A4. Learning that Intrinsity is an ARM developer knits a nice neat picture of a team of chip designers, QA folks and validation folks who would all team up to make the A4 a resounding success. No truer mark of accomplishment can be shown for this effort than Walt Mossberg and David Pogue stating in reviews of the iPad yesterday they both got over 10 hours of run time from their iPads. Kudos to Apple, you may not have made a unique chip but you sure as hell made a well optimized one. Score, score, score.

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gpu macintosh technology

Apple A4 processor really stripped-down Cortex A8? | Electronista

The custom A4 processor in the iPad is in reality a castrated Cortex A8 ARM design, say several sources.

via Apple A4 processor really stripped-down Cortex A8? | Electronista.

This is truly interesting, and really shows some attempt to optimize the chips with ‘known’ working designs. Covering the first announcement of the A4 chip by Brightside of News, I tried to argue that customizing a chip by licensing a core design from ARM Holdings Inc. isn’t all that custom. Following this Ashlee Vance wrote in the NYTimes the cost of development for the A4 ‘could be’ upwards of $1Billion. And now just today MacNN/Electronista is saying Apple used the ARM A8. By this I mean the ARM Cortex A8 is a licensed core already being used in the Apple iPhone 3GS. It is a proven, known cpu core that engineers are familiar with at Apple. Given the level of familiarity, it’s a much smaller step to optimize that same CPU core for speed and integration with other functions. Like for instance the GPU or memory controllers can be tightly bound into the final CPU. Add a dose of power management and you got good performance and good battery life. It’s not cutting edge to be sure, but it is more guaranteed to work right out of the gate. That’s a bloodthirsty step in the right direction of market domination. However, the market hasn’t quite yet shown itself to be so large and self sustaining that slate devices are a sure thing in the casual/auxiliary/secondary computing device market. You may have an iPhone and you may have a laptop, bu this device is going to be purchased IN ADDITION not INSTEAD OF those two existing device markets. So anyone who can afford a third device is probably going to be the target market for iPad as opposed to creating a new platform for people that want to substitute an iPad for either the iPhone or laptop.

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computers macintosh media technology

AppleInsider | Custom Apple A4 iPad chip estimated to be $1 billion investment

In bypassing a traditional chip maker like Intel and creating its own custom ARM-based processor for the iPad, Apple has likely incurred an investment of about $1 billion, a new report suggests.

via AppleInsider | Custom Apple A4 iPad chip estimated to be $1 billion investment.

After reading the NYTimes article linked to within this article I can only conclude it’s a very generalized statement that it costs $1Billion to create a custom chip. The exact quote from the NYTimes article author Ashlee Vance is: “Even without the direct investment of a factory, it can cost these companies about $1 billion to create a smartphone chip from scratch.”

Given that is one third the full price of building a  chip fabrication plant, why so expensive? What is the breakdown of those costs. Apple did invest money in PA Semiconductor to get some chip building expertise (they primarily designed chips that were fabricated at overseas contract manufacturing plants). Given Qualcomm has created the Snapdragon CPU using similar cpu cores from ARM Holdings Inc., they must have $1Billion to throw around too? Qualcomm was once dominant in the cell phone market licensing its CDMA technology to the likes of Verizon. But it’s financial success is nothing like the old days. So how does Qualcomm come up with $1Billion to develop the Snapdragon CPU for smartphones? Does that seem possible?

Qualcomm and Apple are licensing the biggest building blocks and core intellectual property from ARM, all they need to do is route and place and verify the design. Where does the $1Billion figure come into it? Is it the engineers? Is it the masks for exposing the silicon wafers? I argue now as I did in my first posting about the Apple A4 chip, the chip is an adaptation of intellectual property, a license to a CPU design provided by ARM. It’s not literally created from ‘scratch’ starting with no base design or using completely new proprietary intellectual property from Apple. This is why I am confused. Maybe ‘from scratch’ means different things to different people.