4th gen iPad’s A6X chip runs quad-core PowerVR SGX 554MP4 graphics

By , Nov 2, 2012

Apple introduced the new A6X with the fourth-generation iPad on October 23. It’s an improved version of the A6 silicon powering the iPhone 5 by increasing clock frequency for the CPU (1.5GHz) and GPU (500MHz) part in order to achieve Apple’s claim of twice the CPU and GPU performance.

Though the A6X still runs two ARM Cortex-A15 cores with a heavily customized, Apple’s own ARMv7 based processor design (called Swift), the company has improved graphics performance compared to the A6’s three PowerVR-based GPU cores by moving to a newer GPU core: the PowerVR SGX 554 from UK’s fabless semiconductor maker Imagination Technologies, where Apple has an ownership stake…

AnandTech analyzed benchamrks performed by Kishonti Informatics and concluded that Imagination Technologies’ quad-core PowerVR SGX 554MP4 graphics powers the A6X package, itself fabbed on Samsung’s 32-nanometer process.

The A5X package found inside the original and now phased-out iPad 3 model had two ARM Cortex A9 cores running at 1GHz paired with four PowerVR SGX 543 cores running at 250MHz.

The A6X retains the 128-bit wide memory interface of the A5X (and it keeps the memory controller interface adjacent to the GPU cores and not the CPU cores as is the case in the A5/A6). It also integrates two of Apple’s new Swift cores running at up to 1.4GHz (a slight increase from the 1.3GHz cores in the iPhone 5’s A6). The big news today is what happens on the GPU side.

Imagination provides little data about the 554 but Chipworks was able to determine that “each GPU core is sub-divided into 9 sub-cores: 2 sets of 4 identical sub-cores plus a central core”.

Because of this doubling of the per-core count (two sets of four identical sub-cores plus a central core) and the increase in clock frequency, the A6X fares substantially better in GLBenchmark than its A5X counterpart, fulfilling Apple’s “twice as much” performance claim.

Summing up, AnandTech speculates the A6X packs in enough power to deliver graphics-intensive games in the native iPad Retina resolution, something you don’t see very often today for the reasons I explained back in May. “For less compute bound workloads the new iPad still boasts a 53% performance boost over the previous generation”, the author writes.

Chipworks noted that the A6 package is a full 30 percent larger (123mm2 versus 94mm2 for the A5X), with much of that extra area used for the GPU cores (four inside the A6X versus three for the A5X).

More notable is that each of these GPU cores is much larger.On the A6X each GPU core is 8.7mm2 while the A6 GPU cores are only 5.4mm2. The overall area occupied by the A6X GPU cores is more than double that of the A6!

Here’s the so-called floorplan of the A6X system-on-a-chip.

And this is a view of the A5X chip. Notice three GPU cores instead of four.

Chipworks also found double the SDRAM interface width, allowing for greater graphics processing power.

I’m certainly glad that Apple continues to push the envelope in terms of mobile GPU performance. iOS devices are famous for their smooth, hardware-accelerated user interface and gaming performance, which is directly dependent on the underlying GPU technology.

This especially matters as graphics giant Nvidia is making waves with the Tegra 3 processor that powers many competing smartphones and tablets, like Google’s own Nexus 7, Microsoft’s Surface RT and HTC’s One X and X+. In the long haul, however, I see a performance gap emerging between Apple’s chips and those based on Nvidia technology.

Unless Apple switches its graphics provider, Nvidia could overtake iOS devices in both graphics performance and quality. Nvidia chips use shader-based graphics, which gives you juicer lightning effects in games and more complex 3D objects compared to tile-based rendering that PowerVR technologies uses.

Currently, the A6 family dominates the benchmarks, but competition isn’t standing still. Nvidia is out with the Tegra 4/Wayne platform early next year, promising a twofold jump in performance over the current-gen Tegra 3.

Qualcomm’s S4 and S4 PRO chips are also praised for speed and Samsung’s new Exynos 5250 is able to drive the ten-inch Nexus tablet (first reviews just went live today) with its super high-resolution display.

While the Tegra 3 provides enough hardware power to drive that massive display, looks like Android is lagging behind. Check out The Verge’s hands-on video (mark 1:15) for a proof.

As for Apple’s semiconductor strides, CEO Tim Cook indicated that Apple’s newly formed Technologies group under the guidance of long-standing hardware expert Bob Mansfield, has “ambitious plans for the future”.

Just how ambitious those plans may be is anyone’s guess.

Apple’s notably been on the hiring spree as it figures how to take the reigns of its chip destiny. For example, just recently the company hired Jim Mergard, one of Samsung’s most noted chip design luminaries.

 

Apple has long been rumored to taking its chip biz to Taiwan’s TSMC. Currently, all of Apple’s processors for iOS devices are being manufactured by Samsung in its multi-billion dollar plant in Austin, Texas.

While I wouldn’t entirely rule out the possibility of Apple manufacturing its own chips some day, that’s a fairly distant possibility for the time being as the road to building a chip plant of its own has too many perils.

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  • jose castro

    i dont no the retina still kills it for me..

    • HiDEFF

      you’re thinking of the mini, this is the 4th generation which comes with Retina

      • jose castro

        oowwwwwww gotcha…

  • seyss

    I thought Apple designed this chip? All I see are known products inside this chip.

    • goofygreek

      Apple put all these parts together to make there custom chip. But no, they did not actually make the cpu or gpu.

    • http://www.facebook.com/tafk1 Taf Khan

      Apple merely referred to the design of an ARMv7 design, in the the past they just license the exact design. By reference to the design only, apple made customisations from the ground up, it’s these customisations that have allowed for the increase performance and reduced power usage…

  • CollegiateLad

    Good job Apple. Looking forward to the A7X with a quad core CPU and quad core graphics. Innovation in this area is a nice surprise from Apple.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mohammad.faisal.507 Mohammad Faisal

    Good job Apple kicks samsucks

  • http://twitter.com/intelxtreme Khan

    boo apple to slow iphone 5 dual core sucks way too slow comparing to htc one x tegra 3 is fast

    • http://www.facebook.com/xxLIUZHENYUxx Liu Zhenyu

      How old are you, 12? Learn to type properly before exhibiting your false views. Who is using dual core genius? iPhone 5 is using quad core GPU and triple core CPU. Obviously you are google’s goat blinded by your stubborness.

      • Hariandy Alias

        iPhone 5 using Dual Core n triple core graphics coz I have it n feel disappointed … Same size but only taller geez feels like the vintage of first handphone

  • goofygreek

    If I did any intense mobile gaming, I would buy this ipad because it is the best tablet on the market right now. But, my ipad 2 still does a great job for what i do on it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/MaxiRox77 Max Dan Dale

    Misspelled benchmark…

  • http://www.facebook.com/tafk1 Taf Khan

    The iPad is not going to be beaten by an Android device, maybe in a year or two we could be talking about a windows slate on a similar level..

  • http://www.facebook.com/oceandrive187 John Jones

    ha thats funny last time i checked asus transformer 700T is the best on hardware its got a 1.6 quad core with a fifth core to run light things and a 12 core gpu witha really good screen to if it was to run the same software that apple runs it would leave thar shit in the dust left way behind i could be wrong if so tell me why ?

  • Chris

    I really never understood the whole quad core graphics thing. You can’t compare GPU’s from different manufacturers with cores. AMD generally has more cores than Nvidia in their mainstream graphics, but it doesn’t mean a thing. They are made differently and perform differently. It was just a marketing ploy used by apple to make it sound more desirable. The Tegra 3 has 12 GPU cores and the Tegra 4 has 72. It’s the same thing with them advertising the iPad 4 as the “iPad with retina display” despite it having the exact same resolution and screen dimensions as the last one. The iPad 3 was beaten by the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity in graphics performance and The Google Nexus 10 has a better resolution than the iPads.