A9X teardown showcases Apple’s impressive strides in chip design

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?