Apple has long been renowned for the best Arm processor cores for consumers. They tend to provide the highest performance and energy efficiency. This was due to the rapid growth in productivity due to annual changes in architecture over the course of a decade. With the release of the A15 Bionic, the trend towards slower productivity growth is evident.
Recall that as part of yesterday’s presentation, Apple introduced a lot of interesting new products, including new smartphones iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini, as well as the flagships iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max. The new smartphones of the company are based on the proprietary Apple A15 Bionic processor, which is manufactured by TSMC in accordance with the 5nm process technology. The A15 uses the same core configuration as last year’s A14: two high-performance cores (Avalanche) up to 3.2 GHz and four energy-efficient cores (Blizzard) up to 1.8 GHz, replacing the A14’s Firestorm cores and Icestorm respectively.
During the presentation of new devices, Apple spoke rather restrainedly about the new A15 chip, while before, to clearly demonstrate the performance gain, the developers compared the previous generation processors with the new ones. This time Apple chose to compare the A15 with unnamed “competitors”, relative to which the CPU should be 1.5 times faster, and the GPU – 1.3 times faster. Such a comparison would be suitable for AMD or Intel, but it is not suitable for Apple, which, as a rule, does not compare its products with peers from other companies and only competes with itself.
Note that the A15 in the iPhone 13 has four graphics cores, while it is equipped with five graphics cores in the iPhone 13 Pro. Accordingly, the processor provides 30 or 50% more performance of the graphics subsystem, depending on which GPU is available. As for the neural processor, we are talking about an NPU with 16 cores, which provides processing up to 15.8 trillion operations per second against 11 trillion operations for the A14. There is a new video encoder and decoder that may provide support for the AV1 codec. Flagship models received panels with variable refresh rates, so most likely the developers had to use a new display engine. The system cache has doubled to 32MB. It is also speculated that Apple has switched to using LPDDR5 RAM instead of LPDDR4X.
Comparing Apple’s new A15 processor to the previous generation chip is tricky, but the iPad mini can help. Apple said the new iPad mini has a 40% faster CPU and 80% faster GPU compared to the previous generation iPad mini, which is based on the A12 processor. Thus, it can be calculated that the performance gain of the CPU is identical from both A12 to A14 and A12 to A15. The GPU performance boost looks impressive at 38.5%.
Despite the huge increase in the number of transistors from 11.8 billion in the A14 chip to 15 billion in the A15 chip, the increase in performance is negligible. Moreover, since the A16 will be manufactured in 4nm rather than 3nm next year, performance growth is expected to continue to slow.
It looks like Apple hasn’t changed the processor much in this generation. According to the source, the release of the next generation core has been postponed from 2021 to 2022 due to problems associated with the lack of engineers in this area. This may be due to Nuvia, founded in 2019, which was later acquired by Qualcomm for $ 1.4 billion. Apple’s chief processor Gerard Williams and more than 100 Apple engineers moved to Nuvia. Recently, it became known that some Apple engineers involved in the development of processors have moved to Rivos Inc., a new start-up developing chips with RISC-V architecture. If earlier Apple pulled resources from Intel and other companies, now it seems that the opposite is happening.
As a result, instead of a completely new processor core, Apple uses a modified version of last year’s core. Despite this, Apple continues to lead the way in energy efficiency. However, given the gradual return to normal operation of Intel and AMD, as well as the imminent appearance of Qualcomm on the market with Nuvia processors, there is less confidence that Apple will be able to maintain its leadership.