A9X teardown showcases Apple’s impressive strides in chip design

By , Nov 28, 2015

A9X teardown Chipworks

The fine folks over at Chipworks have provided the first up close and personal look at the A9X processor found inside of the recently launched iPad Pro. What it uncovered was yet another impressive design job, one that should, again, make Intel take notice.

Not only is the A9X extremely powerful, besting some laptop machines powered by Intel chips, but it’s also much bigger than the A9 processors supplied by both Samsung and TSMC that are found in the iPhone 6s.

The Motley Fool recently contacted Chipworks for insight into Apple’s newest SoC. What it found was a technical achievement that Apple’s designers should be more than proud of.

First and foremost, the new A9X is much bigger than any other mobile chip powering an iOS device that we’ve seen thus far. In fact, the A9X is 40% larger than the TSMC-provided A9 processor in the iPhone 6s. This is possible due to the larger amount of real estate available in the iPad Pro, a device that’s much larger than any other iOS device yet.

But size tells only part of the story. The A9X, as can be seen by the die-image above, is A chip featuring two CPU cores and a 12-cluster GPU:

Chipworks’ Dick James tells me that he sees a 12-cluster GPU, two CPU cores, and an absence of the level-three cache memory found inside the A9 chip (I’ll explain why I think Apple didn’t include it later in this article). I agree with his assessment. The two CPU cores can be seen in the green box, and I believe that inside of each blue box are two GPU clusters, for a total of 12 clusters.

At the end of the day, the sheer size of the iPad Pro is what affords the ability to place such a chip inside of its casing:

According to Chipworks, the chip measures in at approximately 147 square millimeters, a whopping 40% larger than the size of the TSMC-built variant of the A9 chip inside of the iPhone 6s/6s Plus. This is an absolutely huge increase in area (and by extension transistor count) from the A9, which no doubt means that this monster of a chip is far more difficult to manufacture, especially on a relatively new manufacturing technology.

The Motley Fool’s report also makes it clear that the A9X lacks the 8MB of on-board cache that the standard A9 features, and speculates as to why that might be. I highly encourage you to take a look at full breakdown, as it contains additional details that anyone who’s keen on Apple’s chip design process would be interested in.

Even if we weren’t provided with a A9X teardown, it’s clear to see that this chip is far and away more powerful than any of the chips found in prior released iOS devices. As I showed you in a previous video, the iPad Pro easily keeps up with my i7-powered 2013 MacBook Pro with Retina display when exporting 4K video.

What are your thoughts on the strides Apple has made in its chip designing process? Do you think that Intel has a basis for worry?

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  • techfreak23

    Intel should only be worried if they manage to shrink it down for the rest of the iOS devices. Also, you can’t directly compare the two because Apple designs their chips specifically for iOS, so there is a level of optimization that can’t be reached on Macs because Apple doesn’t have control in that category. So until Apple starts including customized chips in the Macs, Intel really shouldn’t have much to worry about.

    • Right, but the point is, an A-class processor _could_ be used in a Mac at this point…

      • techfreak23

        I doubt Apple would be doing that anytime soon. That would break support for all of the desktop/laptop applications currently on the market. We would be thrown back into the time of the whole PowerPC/Intel issues, which would piss off a good majority of their customers.

        What I’m somewhat holding out for is combining the phone/laptop experience like Motorola tried out when they released the Atrix some years back, which was also one the first mobile quad-core fingerprint sensor equipped smartphones on the market.

      • I’m not saying it will, but one barrier to entry–power– is effectively nullified at this point. True no one wants to deal with a Rosetta-like solution in 2015, but the potential is there…

      • techfreak23

        True. They can definitely make that move at this point if they really wanted to, but I’d like to think that they will keep those categories separate. I completely agree though that the iPad Pro is a powerhouse that can hold its own against certain Intel processors. I just wish they had done more with iOS for the Pro to utilize all of that extra power. At this point, it’s still just a giant iPad.

      • jamesdbailey

        Trying to emulate an Intel x86 device with an Apple ARM A9X would be a disaster. When Apple introduced Rosetta to emulate the PowerPC, the Intel Core Duo was significantly faster than most laptop G4s and somewhat faster than a desktop G5. Under most tests the A9X is just about the same speed as an Intel Core-i3 low power CPU. Emulating an i3 would be very slow, maybe 1/3rd or less of the actual speed.

      • Toukale

        Last time I check IOS is the money maker for Apple with over 1.5 million apps. The geeks and super users would be pissed but whatever. If folks have not been paying attention, Apple stopped catering to those folks a while ago. The people that made Apple the biggest company in the world would not care one iota.

      • Bendy

        If anyone could pull it off Apple could. Intel is old and should be put to rest.

      • rockdude094

        Maybe thats why apple’s been pushing for metal and swift

  • James G

    Apple sells way more iOS devices than Macs anyway, so this isn’t a loss for Intel. When Apple starts putting their own chips in Macs as well, then that will be a hit for Intel–but still not significantly so since there aren’t that many Macs out there compared to the number of PCs that ship with Intel chips around the world.

  • jameskatt

    The A9X GPU already is faster than the nVidia GPU on MacBook Pros. Conceivably, Apple can replace the GPU in MacBook Pros with the A9X GPU.
    Apple should get a license to create custom Intel CPUs. Then it can create faster Intel Processors than Intel itself can create.

  • Richmond Ong

    You can slap 4 A9X to a MacBook Pro…

  • tariq

    I want to switch to iPhone from android but I really want swipe text, is there an app or tweak for that?

    • KinkyNothing

      There are many keyboard apps, but they re a bit buggy. I’d stay away from them

    • tralalalalalala50

      Yes, apple allowed custom keyboards last year and there are many swipe based text entry keyboards.

      Because iOS has such a strong app market, and is not beset by rampant piracy like android, many developers have made iOS only keyboards that are forward thinking and amazing. Crazy what a good market will do to people and their ideas 🙂

      • Rebecca N

        Fanboy alert.

        Not a single one of those apps function as well or offer as many features as their android counterparts because Apple is still restricting what they can do. But you keep pushing your bias agenda from within your bubble. You’re probably a christian conservative too, aren’t you? You sheep read like books 🙂

      • tralalalalalala50

        Looloololllllzzzz sorry, piracy on android is stopping lots of great apps from being released. Lots of amazing calendar and gif keyboards are iOS only because it’s the only platform that makes devs money.

      • Rebecca N

        “Looloololllllzzzz ” What are you, 9 years old? Typical apple fanboy, mindless sheep where apples marketing genius turns your brain to mush. Run along moron, you’ve got nothing to contribute.