SoC Analysis: Apple A9X

Diving into the heart of the iPad Pro, we have Apple’s latest generation tablet SoC, A9X. Like the other Apple X series SoCs before it, A9X is by and large an enhanced and physically larger version of Apple’s latest phone SoC, taking advantage of the greater space and heat dissipation afforded by a tablet to produce a more powerful SoC.


Apple's A9X (Image Courtesy iFixit)

That Apple has developed a new SoC to launch alongside the iPad Pro is in no way surprising, but just as how the iPad Pro has ramifications for the overall iPad lineup as Apple gets into the productivity tablet market, iPad Pro’s genesis is reflected in its component selection. Apple already needed a powerful SoC for the iPad Air 2 in order to keep performance up with the tablet’s high resolution of the screen, and iPad Pro in turn pushes Apple’s performance needs even harder. Not only is there an even higher resolution screen to drive – the 2732x2048 display has about 66% of the pixels of a 4K display – but now Apple needs to deliver suitable performance for content creation and meaningful multitasking. I don’t want to imply that the A9X was somehow specifically designed from scratch for the iPad Pro, as there are a number of more important engineering considerations, but I do want to highlight how the iPad Pro is not just another iPad, and that as Apple expands the capabilities of the iPad they need to expand the performance as well if they wish to extend their reputation for smooth UX performance.

Looking at the specifications of the A9X, it seems like Apple always throws us a curveball on the X series SoCs, and for their latest SoC this is no different. With A8X Apple delivered more RAM on a wider memory bus, a larger GPU, and surprisingly, three Typhoon CPU cores. To date it’s still not clear just why Apple went with three CPU cores on A8X – was it for multitasking, or as an alternative means to boost performance – and A9X’s configuration only serves to highlight this enigma.

Apple SoC Comparison
  A9X A9 A8X A6X
CPU 2x Twister 2x Twister 3x Typhoon 2x Swift
CPU Clockspeed 2.26GHz 1.85GHz 1.5GHz 1.3GHz
GPU PVR 12 Cluster Series7XT PVR 6 Cluster Series7
(PVR GT7600)
PVR 8 Cluster Series6XT
(APL GXA6850)
PVR SGX554 MP4
RAM 4GB LPDDR4 2GB LPDDR4 2GB LPDDR3 1GB LPDDR2
Memory Bus Width 128-bit 64-bit 128-bit 128-bit
Memory Bandwidth 51.2GB/sec 25.6GB/sec 25.6GB/sec 17.1GB/sec
L2 Cache 3MB 3MB 2MB 1MB
L3 Cache None 4MB 4MB N/A
Manufacturing Process TSMC 16nm FinFET TSMC 16nm &
Samsung 14nm
TSMC 20nm Samsung 32nm

Instead of continuing with a triple-core CPU design for A9X, for their latest X series SoC Apple has dropped back down to just a pair of Twister CPU cores. The catch here – and why two cores is in many ways better than three – is that relative to A8X and A9, Apple has cranked up their CPU clockspeeds. Way, way up. Whereas the iPad Air 2 (A8X) shipped at 1.5GHz and the iPhone 6s (A9) at 1.85GHz, the A9X sees Apple push their clockspeed to 2.26GHz. Not counting the architectural changes, this is 22% higher clocked than the A9 and 51% higher than the A8X.

The fact that Apple dropped back down to 2 CPU cores is unexpected given that we don’t expect Apple to ever go backwards in such a fashion, and while we’ll never know the official reason for everything Apple does, in retrospect I’m starting to think that A8X was an anomaly and Apple didn’t really want a tri-core CPU in the first place. A8X came at a time where Apple was bound by TSMC’s 20nm process and couldn’t drive up their clockspeeds without vastly increasing power consumption, so a third core was a far more power effective option.


A9X Die Shot w/AT Annotations (Die Shot Courtesy Chipworks)

Overall this means that iPad Pro and A9X will set a very high bar for tablet CPU performance. As we’ve already seen in the iPhone 6s review, the Twister CPU core is very potent and in most cases faster than any other ARM CPU core by leaps and bounds. Cranking up the clockspeed a further 22% only serves to open up that gap even further, as Twister is now reaching clockspeeds similar to the likes of Cortex-A57 and A72, but with its much wider execution pipeline and greater IPC. This is also the reason that an Intel Core CPU comparison is so interesting, as Intel’s tablet-class Core processors in many ways are the target to beat on overall CPU performance, and we’ll be touching upon this subject in greater detail a bit later.

GPU: Imagination PowerVR 12 Cluster Series 7XT

Meanwhile on the GPU side, as expected Apple has further increased the number of clusters on their SoC to drive the higher resolution display of a tablet. Whereas A9 used a 6 cluster design (PVR GT7600), A9X doubles this, giving us a relatively massive 12 cluster design.

In Imagination’s PowerVR Series7XT roadmap, the company doesn’t have an official name for a 12 cluster configuration, as this falls between the 8 cluster GT7800 and 16 cluster GT7900. So for the moment I’m simply calling it a “PowerVR 12 cluster Series7XT design,” and with any luck Imagination will use a more fine-grained naming scheme for future generations of PowerVR graphics.

In any case, the use of a 12 cluster design is a bit surprising from an engineering standpoint since it means that Apple was willing to take the die space hit to implement additional GPU clusters, despite the impact this would have on chip yields and costs. If anything, with the larger thermal capacity and battery of the iPad Pro, I had expected Apple to use higher GPU clockspeeds (and eat the power cost) in order to save on chip costs. Instead what we’re seeing is a GPU that essentially offers twice the GPU power of A9’s GPU.

However to put all of this in context, keep in mind that iPad Pro’s display is 5.95Mpixels, versus the 2.07Mpixel screen on the iPhone 6s Plus. So although Apple has doubled the number of GPU clusters for A9X – and I suspect clocked it fairly similarly – that increased performance will be very quickly consumed by the iPad Pro’s high resolution screen. Consequently even a 12 cluster GPU design is something of a compromise; if Apple wanted to maintain the same level of GPU performance per pixel as in the iPhone 6s family, they would have needed an even more powerful GPU. Which just goes to show how demanding tablets can be.

Memory Subsystem: 128-bit LPDDR4-3200, No L3 Cache

Responsibility for feeding the beast that is A9X’s GPU falls to A9X’s 128-bit LPDDR4 memory controller configuration. With twice as many GPU clusters, Apple needs twice as much memory bandwidth to maintain the same bandwidth-to-core ratio, so like the past X-series tablet SoCs, A9X implements a 128-bit bus. For Apple this means they now have a sizable 51.2GB/sec of memory bandwidth to play with. For an SoC this is a huge amount of bandwidth, but at the same time it’s quickly going to be consumed by those 12 GPU clusters.

Geekbench 3 Memory Bandwidth Comparison (1 thread)
  Stream Copy Stream Scale Stream Add Stream Triad
Apple A9X 2.26GHz 20.8 GB/s 15.0 GB/s 15.3 GB/s 15.1 GB/s
Apple A8X 1.5GHz 14.2 GB/s 7.44 GB/s 7.54 GB/s 7.49 GB/s
A9X Advantage 46.4% 101% 103% 102%

It’s also while looking at A9X’s memory subsystem however that we find our second and final curveball for A9X: the L3 cache. Or rather, the lack thereof. For multiple generations now Apple has used an L3 cache on both their phone and tablet SoCs to help feed both the CPU and GPU, as even a fast memory bus can’t keep up with a low latency local cache. Even as recent as A9, Apple included a 4MB victim cache. However for A9X there is no L3 cache; the only caches on the chip are the individual L1 and L2 caches for the CPU and GPU, along with some even smaller amounts for cache for various other functional blocks..

The big question right now is why Apple would do this. Our traditional wisdom here is that the L3 cache was put in place to service both the CPU and GPU, but especially the GPU. Graphics rendering is a memory bandwidth-intensive operation, and as Apple has consistently been well ahead of many of the other ARM SoC designers in GPU performance, they have been running headlong into the performance limitations imposed by narrow mobile memory interfaces. An L3 cache, in turn, would alleviate some of that memory pressure and keep both CPU and GPU performance up.

One explanation may be that Apple deemed the L3 cache no longer necessary with the A9X’s 128-bit LPDDR4 memory bus; that 51.2GB/sec of bandwidth meant that they no longer needed the cache to avoid GPU stalls. However while the use of LPDDR4 may be a factor, Apple’s ratio of bandwidth-to-GPU cores of roughly 4.26GB/sec-to-1 core is identical to A9’s, which does have an L3 cache. With A9X being a larger A9 in so many ways, this alone isn’t the whole story.

What’s especially curious is that the L3 cache on the A9 wasn’t costing Apple much in the way of space. Chipworks puts the size of A9’s 4MB L3 cache block at a puny ~4.5 mm2, which is just 3% the size of A9X. So although there is a cost to adding L3 cache, unless there are issues we can’t see even with a die shot (e.g. routing), Apple didn’t save much by getting rid of the L3 cache.

Our own Andrei Frumusanu suspects that it may be a power matter, and that Apple was using the L3 cache to save on power-expensive memory operations on the A9. With A9X however, it’s a tablet SoC that doesn’t face the same power restrictions, and as a result doesn’t need a power-saving cache. This would be coupled with the fact that with double the GPU cores, there would be a lot more pressure on just a 4MB cache versus the pressure created by A9, which in turn may drive the need for a larger cache and ultimately an even larger die size.

As it stands there’s no one obvious reason, and it’s likely that all 3 factors – die size, LPDDR4, and power needs – all played a part here, with only those within the halls of One Infinite Loop knowing for sure. However I will add that since Apple has removed the L3 cache, the GPU L2 cache must be sizable. Imagination’s tile based deferred rendering technology needs an on-chip cache to hold tiles in to work on, and while they don’t need an entire frame’s worth of cache (which on iPad Pro would be over 21MB), they do need enough cache to hold a single tile. It’s much harder to estimate GPU L2 cache size from a die shot (especially with Apple’s asymmetrical design), but I wouldn’t be surprised of A9X’s GPU L2 cache is greater than A9’s or A8X’s.

Building A9X Big: 147mm2, Manufactured By TSMC

Finally, let’s talk about the construction and fabrication of the A9X SoC itself. Chipworks’ previous analysis shows that the A9X is roughly 147mm2 in die size, and that it’s manufactured by TSMC on their 16nm FinFET process.

At 147mm2 the A9X is the second-largest of Apple’s X-series tablet SoCs. Only the A5X, the first such SoC, was larger. Fittingly, it was also built relative to Apple’s equally large A5 phone SoC. With only 3 previous tablet SoCs to use as a point of comparison I’m not sure there’s really a sweet spot we can say that Apple likes to stick to, but after two generations of SoCs in the 120mm2 to 130mm2 range, A9X is noticeably larger.

Some of that comes from the fact that A9 itself is a bit larger than normal – the TSMC version is 104.5mm2 – but Apple has also clearly added a fair bit to the SoC. The wildcard here is what yields look like for Apple, as that would tell us a lot about whether a 147mm2 A9X is just a large part or if Apple has taken a greater amount of risk than usual here.

A9X continues to be the largest 16nm FinFET ASIC we know to be in mass production at TSMC (we’ll ignore FPGAs for now), and while this will undoubtedly change a bit later this year once the next-generation discrete GPUs come online, I don’t think you’ll find a better example of how the contract chip manufacturing market has changed in a single generation. 4 years ago it would be GPUs leading the charge, but now it’s phone SoCs and a rather sizable tablet SoC that are first out of the gate. After almost a decade of catching up, SoCs have now reached the bleeding edge for chip fabrication, enabling rapid performance growth, but also inheriting the risks of being the leader. I won’t dwell on this too much, but I’m immensely curious about both what A9X yields are like as the largest FinFET ASIC at TSMC, and just how much of TSMC’s FinFET capacity Apple has been consuming with the production of A9 and A9X.

Finally, it's also interesting to note just how large A9X is compared to other high performance processors. Intel's latest-generation Skylake processors measure in at ~99mm2 for the 2 core GT2 configuration (Skylake-Y 2+2), and even the 4 core desktop GT2 configuration (Intel Skylake-K 4+2) is only 122mm2. So A9X is larger than either of these CPU cores, though admittedly as a whole SoC A9X contains a number of functional units either not present on Skylake or on Skylake's Platform Controller Hub (PCH). Still, this is the first time that we've seen an Apple launch a tablet SoC larger than an Intel 4 core desktop CPU.

Introduction and Design SoC Analysis: On x86 vs ARMv8
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  • ddriver - Sunday, January 24, 2016 - link

    Bing is a professional application for every professional lamer. To the latter, the ipad "pro" is a professional product too. Reply
  • ddriver - Sunday, January 24, 2016 - link

    LOL At most 2 or 3 of those could qualify for "professional" if one is inclined to be generous with the labels.

    Professional applications - photoshop, 3d max, maya, solidworks, coreldraw, indesign, visual studio, cubase, pro tools, after effects, fusion, z-brush, and so on.
    Reply
  • 10101010 - Friday, January 22, 2016 - link

    Yeah, I'm sure that's why the combined "hammer + screwdriver" tool market is just booming. Reply
  • ddriver - Friday, January 22, 2016 - link

    Yeah, I am sure making good analogies is not your strong point.

    A more appropriate analogy would be those screwdriver kits with a single handle and interchangeable tips, saving you the effort to carry around 20 different screwdrivers, and those kits are GREAT ;)

    But we aren't talking just any hardware here, we are talking computers, and general purpose at that, this is not the case of some special purpose hardware. This is a general purpose computer, and what it does is defined entirely by its software. Absent any software, it is just a paper weight, or a serving tray, absent professional software it is just a toy, intended to milk people out of their money.
    Reply
  • lmcd - Tuesday, February 9, 2016 - link

    I mean, a lot of the times they are bought in bundles ;) Reply
  • abazigal - Friday, January 22, 2016 - link

    Possibly because there isn't a hybrid that is as good as a dedicated laptop and a dedicated tablet. You are essentially trading one set of compromises for another, and people's mileage will vary. Reply
  • ddriver - Friday, January 22, 2016 - link

    So a "hybrid" being 10% heavier and 10% thicker than a tablet, and 10% slower than a laptop justifies buying and carrying a tablet and a laptop instead of a hybrid?

    Obviously, a hybrid will be a little slower than a laptop and a little heavier than a tablet, but in many cases that is not detrimental. People should have the option to use their devices to the full extent of their capabilities, and whoever needs the extra horsepower will buy a laptop or even a desktop system instead.

    I really don't understand how come people have such a big problem with maximizing a device capability and productivity? IN what way will the availability of professional software for iOS hurt you?
    Reply
  • 10101010 - Saturday, January 23, 2016 - link

    I just don't see a "hybrid" being defined primarily by size, weight, or speed. If we look at a hybrid such as the "Surface Pro", it is defined mostly by its Windows 10 operating system. This is an insecure loaded-with-spyware-at-the-factory desktop OS that pretends to be a tablet OS, laptop OS, server OS, phone OS, etc. There are really no great Windows apps made specifically for a tablet (although a few work nicely with a pen/stylus). So at the end of the day what is a Surface Pro "hybrid" really? It is a desktop OS and a keyboardless laptop. It's marketed as "best of both" but really it is a Frankenstein computer made of parts that Microsoft sawed off other products.

    Contrast Microsoft's Frankenstein with the iPad Pro -- a tablet built to be a tablet that runs what is widely regarded as the most stable, secure, and highest quality mobile OS. And delivers the closest thing yet to "paper and pencil" functionality to the market. Your point about the professional software is right on. As the apps evolve for the iPad Pro and more professional apps become available, it will only expand what an iPad Pro can be used for, opening the tablet up to being useful for more customers.
    Reply
  • ddriver - Saturday, January 23, 2016 - link

    I am sure iOS is spying on users as much as Windows 10, after all, M$ was largely inspired by Apple in this regard. And unlike W10, you can't really disable it in iOS.

    Unfortunately, the lack of professional applications, whose UI is usable on a tablet is true, be those windows, android or ios tablets. I do acknowledge that the only reason windows tablets have the upper hand is they can run the good old legacy professional software, which is a pain in the ass to use without a mouse and keyboard.

    It would seem that the industry is rather unimaginative, they keep releasing new versions of their professional products, but don't adopt a better paradigm for user interaction, one that would work equally well on a traditional desktop PC and a tablet. Software giants are just as lazy and unimaginative as hardware giants.

    And it is not like it is impossible, it is well within the realm of possibility to adapt the UI for wider device usage without impairing productivity, if anything, a more clever design will make application interaction easier, a lot of the professional app UIs are a pain to work with, even with a mouse, and practically impossible to use with a touch device.

    One of the projects I am currently working on is a graphical programming language / IDE, capable of producing commercial grade software, and it is equally useful on a desktop with mouse and keyboard and on a tablet or even on a phone with touch. It is 2-3 months away from public release, unfortunately due to apple's policies, I will not be publishing to their store, since they don't really allow the degree of freedom an application development tool requires. It will still be available for jail broken apple hardware.
    Reply
  • Constructor - Saturday, January 23, 2016 - link

    I am sure iOS is spying on users as much as Windows 10, after all, M$ was largely inspired by Apple in this regard. And unlike W10, you can't really disable it in iOS.

    That is just nonsense. Apple is very careful about looking at user data, and in fact they credibly follow the tenet "the less of your information we look at, the better!".

    That is not how Microsoft is proceeding with Windows 10 – there they seem to go more the Google route.
    Reply

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