Apple’s A4, Thinking Different and Going Forward

The Keynote has come and gone and the bloggers have complained about the lack of multi-tasking, Flash and no Blu-Ray DVD. Well, maybe not the last one.  Now, the time is quickly approaching when the iPad will be in the wild and the details of the A4 will be extracted.

To pick up where the last article left off our speculation about the iPad, then tablet, and A4 appear to have been in the right direction.  Along the way comments from Steve Jobs and Tim Cook have reaffirmed an interest in differentiating the iPad on the hardware level.  That said, there will be an ARM CPU and  the GPU will too likely be centered around a licensed core.  So where does the differentiation occur?

The CPU may well get the most attention on the A4.  However graphics horsepower and tricks are also important.  In agreement with our speculation, the January 27th Keynote certainly showed a graphics intensive system.  It has also been reported that iPad graphics are quite smooth with no hesitation in the motion or transitions. This is important to Apple as it will affect the user’s experience and feeling for the device.  Getting a bit fanciful, is there extra graphics horsepower with a parallel compute engine, which is used in some dedicated video processors, or maybe some on board ROM holding graphics code as firmware to speed things along.

Looking forward,  Apple acquired PA Semi in April ‘08 and the date code on the A4 publicity shot suggests the part was packaged in September ‘09.  That is a mere 17 mos. for design, tape-out, fabrication and testing, not much time.  A4 circuit design was likely occurring in parallel to system level design and software development, likely leading to considerable learning and some comprises along the way.  It will be the next revision or two that will be quite interesting as the blocks are tweaked to improve performance with the OS and major end applications being set.

There is more to come in this move into more semiconductor design.