Apple’s A-Chip A-Team Takes Center Stage at the Fall 2015 Event (Plus a Few Other Notes)

A9X. A9. A8 intriguingly freed of two key constraints.

It was a “Hey Siri” event, but Apple’s latest SoCs merit that little extra bit of attention (if you’ll excuse that it’s a humble home gamer who’s blogging about them).

The A9X Dreadnought – Harbinger of Full CPU/GPU Independence

Why does Apple (selectively) invest in iPad despite its decidedly lousy retrograde growth as of late? Well, aside from it being Apple’s highest-volume bigger-screen computing device (still a good distance ahead of Mac at ~50M units/yr. vs. Mac’s ~20M units/yr., though ASP is of course another matter), it remains Apple’s all-in bet on the (non-smartphone) Post-PC device era. When and if the 400-450M or so combined PCs and non-appliance tablets become mostly not-PCs over time, it’s obviously in Apple’s best interest to be strongly in that mix with its own influential vision of post-mice ultramobile computing.

The key enabling technology for that vision, of course, is Apple’s custom silicon, which is more free to do more ambitious things on bigger, higher-resolution screens and larger power envelopes. Hence the clearly powerful (for an ARM chip), possibly 14nm-process A9X, debuting exclusively in Apple’s newest iPad SKU, the 5.6MP 12.9″ iPad Pro.

Apple’s made some “decent” strides since the A4, claiming a 22-fold increase in CPU performance since then, and a 360-fold increase in GPU in the same span of time:

a9x-cpu

a9x-gpu

Considering the humble A5X could handle a 3MP display (acceptably), the “20x” as powerful A9X GPU is more than up to the task of driving close to 80% more pixels. And indeed, there’s enough left over to, according to Apple, play “three simultaneous 4K video streams in iMovie”.

Add to that this provocative slide, and the obvious takeaway?

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 12.30.09 AM

“Hey Intel, we won’t be needing you soon enough to run customer-grade OS X, if it comes to that.” The only things holding Apple back? Translation binaries (again) and, well, Windows compatibility out of the box. Still, nice to know you can control your destiny with your own chips, if necessary. And the Mac business, large as it is, only accounts for approximately 10% of Apple revenues. How many Macs sold in the past 3 years run Windows, I wonder?

The A9, Keeping the Massive Speed Boost Tradition Alive for iPhone S Generations

Seeing A9X’s massive performance delta over the already-fairly-ridiculous A8X gave me great optimism for the A9, and it didn’t disappoint. Just when I thought a still-not-bad performance boost of 25% in CPU (A8 vs. A7) and 50% YOY boost in claimed GPU performance set the tone for the new normal, Apple instead boosted the A9 CPU by up to 1.7x, and GPU up to 1.9x the first-gen A8 powering the iPhone 6.

a9-cpu

a9-gpu

Apple may be “holding back” on storage capacity, but that’s something that can be controlled with data loadout discipline and cloud storage. You can’t mitigate a slow smartphone processor starved for RAM, and there was only so much the A7 and A8 could do with a single gigabyte of RAM to work with. Unless there’s some screen resolution boost around the corner between now and iPhone 7S :P, iPhone 6S brings significant future proofing and push-the-envelope opportunities to iPhone, beyond ensuring a smoother experience with 3D Touch.

Hey, maybe some don’t think of these huge performance gains as a big deal, but for anyone who ever wondered why their iPhone 6/Plus gets bogged down despite the A8 chip, it’ll be a much-needed improvement. We’re now at a point where iPhone 6S on iOS 11 won’t be anything like iPhone 3G on iOS 4.

The new Apple TV’s Custom A8

A8/1GB RAM for iPhone 6/Plus.

A8X/2GB for iPad Air 2.

A8/2GB for new Apple TV. Read: NOT a simple A-chip repurposing.

Rather than cutting out a core from the A5 and putting it in an Apple TV, Apple adds voltage and a second gig of RAM to the new-generation unit. Throw in 32/64GB storage, and you have the iOS version of what Mac mini was to the iBook: a compact mobile compute base without the display.

While the new Apple TV lacks HDMI 2.0 and 4K support (neither of which are super-mainstream just yet, I’d imagine), it’s still very well equipped for the not-going-anywhere-just-yet 1080p TVs of today (and it’ll still run on 4K televisions anyway, just not at 4K). We don’t know what an A8 with no need to conserve (that much) power and extra system resources is capable of, but Apple sure does. And if it’s good enough for iPad, it should entertain plenty well connected to a TV set for at least 2-3 years, after which Apple presumably ups the ante with an A9+ SoC and enters the 4KTV era.

A Few Extra Notes

iPhone has delivered where it counts and then some. Unless consumer spending tanks and/or “the people” decide 1334×750/1920×1080 displays just won’t cut it, it certainly looks like Apple’s done more than enough to keep the iPhone 6-spurred demand wave going until at least iPhone 7. No one’s expecting 35% YOY unit growth – I wonder if they’re even expecting 5% on average – but I’ll “boldly” predict here and now that iPhone will grow (even if it’s more like 10-15%), and China (Mobile) will be a big help in this regard.

Yes, it’s a shame that Apple didn’t boost iPhone (or non-Pro iPad) starting capacity to 32GB minimum. But how many of those who are “upset” by this, and owned an iPhone/iPad of recent vintage, actually had a 16GB model? Look, Apple’s a $230B/yr. and growing company. It’s no longer a “cult” (was it ever?), and it’s too big to drive this level of sales and profitability with sheer force of personality. And no, Apple didn’t do this to personally spite/hurt/extort tech consumers worldwide – have you fairly evaluated the rest of the iPhone year-on-year changes? Apple made a data-assisted Cold Blooded Business Decision(tm) and it’s up to dissatisfied consumers to drive change. Meanwhile, I’ve been out of the 16GB tier for a long time now.

iPad Pro “isn’t cheap”, but it doesn’t look absurdly expensive against, say, Dell 2-in-1sHP 2-in-1s, or even high-resolution competitors like the 3200×1800-screened, Win10-based Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro. Starting at $799 for an enterprise-class device? I think IBM has some room to work its sales magic.

While Apple has the chips, it’s decided to invest in only the iPad mini (4) and iPad (Pro) this cycle, leaving iPad Air 1 and 2 at the same price points as before (at least for now). Not that there’s any rule of the universe that Apple must update iPad once per year OR price drop the given SKU, and Apple only has so much attention and energy to spend on product maintenance, but it’s still interesting to see Apple “do nothing” with what was formerly the flagship of the iPad lineup.

Apple TV is a cheaper, more powerful Nintendo Wii without force feedback in the remote, before getting to the rest of the app platform. I’ve gone from “eh, just not interested (A5 version)” to “I’ll buy 1-2 as holiday gifts (A8 version)”. It’ll never be iPad scale, but 10M units/year scale with a side of subscription/app revenue? I bet at least Wii U is feeling some heat all of a sudden.

Apple’s capped off one of the most exciting product years yet, as you might or might not expect from a company experiencing unprecedented success. This time next year, I humbly submit, will prove consumers were very receptive to the latest fruits of Apple’s annual Fall Harvest.

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