Apple's A7 Chip Is Quite Incredible

Apple's A7 Chip Is Quite Incredible

It still doesn't seem as though investors give Apple enough credit for the sheer level of innovation that Apple brings to its products at the silicon level. Sure, when all is said and done, the user experience comes from the subtle interplay of hardware and software, but investors that constantly berate Apple for a "lack of innovation" certainly don't have much respect for what it takes to build best-of-breed silicon. Apple's A7 system-on-chip is arguably the most sophisticated mobile processor available today, and it seems likely that Apple will continue its tradition of delivering truly world-class processors.

It's not just about 64-bit
Don't get lost in the "64 bit" hype. While it's a great buzzword, the performance gains in the A7 come primarily from a very aggressive microarchitecture (that is, the actual design of the chip) as well as an instruction set that supports some interesting, performance-enhancing features. It does Apple's engineering team a great disservice when people claim that the "64 bit" (which all of the ARM chip vendors will get to over the next year or two, and what Intel is shipping today) is the real star here -- it's not.

What Apple built here is a supremely powerful processor core (much faster than any individual mobile core out there), and instead of trying to shoehorn four less powerful cores into the chip's die, it instead opted for two very powerful ones. Since most mobile software can barely take advantage of two cores, let alone four, this seems to have been an excellent decision made for the sake of user experience and engineering elegance, rather than for marketing. If you want an example of a truly poor set of design choices, look no further than Samsung's Exynos Octa, which is a power-guzzling configuration that simply can't match the elegance of Apple's design.

It's not just the processor, though
The CPU (the "brains" of the chip) is just one component of a mobile processor. Apple also took great care to use the best GPU that Imagination Technologies had to offer, and managed to offer the very first commercial implementation of Imagination's PowerVR Series 6 GPUs. While some may point to the fact that Apple technically didn't design this GPU, it was the first to implement it. Apple also did a great deal of work developing the drivers for iOS. There's no doubt that Apple did a superb job there, as the A7's GPU is best-in-class.

On top of that, though, Apple did something very clever: it integrated a 4MB block of SRAM to act as a "system-level cache," according to Anandtech. In a nutshell, Apple realized that, in order to get truly good performance even with the limitations of mobile memory bandwidth, it needed a way to keep the processor and the graphics fed without dramatically increasing RAM/board costs. A fat, reasonably fast cache is usually the way to go, something that Intel's engineers have been exploiting with great success for many years.

Was this chip intended for a MacBook Air?
What strikes me as interesting is that the Apple A7, according to Anandtech, can be coaxed to draw about eight watts in a "power virus-like setting." This begins to border on Ultrabook-level power consumption, which begs the question, "Was Apple gunning to put this in a MacBook Air?"

There's no doubt that Apple was at least considering that possibility. While Apple will always use the best processor for the job (and for anything PC-class, Intel's processors are still superior), it wouldn't be surprising to see Apple's engineers at least attempt to build up its A-series processors to be good laptop-class chips. However, the distinction between tablet and PC is becoming increasingly academic. At what point does the iPad become fast enough that, with a good keyboard dock and external mouse, it essentially becomes a lower-end PC?

Apple's Tim Cook poked fun at Microsoft for trying to unify tablets and PCs, but it's clear Apple is doing the same thing (just in a more subtle, less dramatic manner). Is it any coincidence that Apple is porting more of its productivity software suite to the iPad?

Foolish bottom line
Apple's low-power chip team is truly best-in-class. It makes smart decisions and does them for the sake of user experience, not for arbitrary core count or GHz metrics. Add in Apple's complete control over the iOS software stack, and how it interacts with the hardware, and you've got a recipe for continued technological success. While this may not translate into an increased stock price (very few consumers care what chip is in their phone), it is certainly worth reflecting on for all (potential) Apple investors.

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Ashraf Eassa owns shares of Intel. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Intel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Imagination Technologies, and Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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