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Uncovering the mysterious A5

Posted: 02 May 2011 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:A5? ipad 2? A4? iOS?

Apple Inc.'s iPad 2 has only been publicly available for about a month. However, it seems this young device has kept few secrets since we have known there were 21 magnets in the smart cover and saw a die floorplan of the A5 within mere days of its release. The flurry of the first wave of disassembly and dissection seems to have died down while we might assume that some very detailed circuit analysis is likely just beginning to be scoped out.

When the A4 was subjected to the same procedure just under one year ago, there was a sense it was going to underwhelm anyone expecting a unique design because so little time had passed between Apple ramping up its design team with the acquisition of PA Semi and the release date. There simply wasn't time to generate a new design. The A5 is a different story. Another year has passed.

The A5 is also the second data point in terms of design strategy for Apple's iOS SoC. While two data points constitute a streak only in baseball, this second design would have had sufficient time for Apple to be moving in the direction they want. So how did the A5 fare? Has it met expectations at this early stage of the analysis?

First, a look back
During the Jan. 27, 2010 keynote, both the iPad and A4 were publicly debuted for the first time. While the former has become a media darling and the object of global consumer desire, the latter quietly went about its business filling more and more sockets.

A4 processor

Figure 1: Infrared backside die image of Apple's A4 applications processor with single ARM core indicated. (Click for larger image.)

During 2010 the A4 appeared in the iPhone 4, iPod Touch and Apple TV. Although the A4 played second fiddle to the iPad, it did just fine in its own right. Yes it is not Apple's first design effort, but it is arguably their most important with the A4 being central to Apple's iOS devices and therefore key to a very large revenue stream for the largest technology company, something that cannot be said of previous design efforts.

While the client is somewhat captive in this case it is worth considering the A4 and now A5 as a semiconductor story. We might be jumping the gun to call them rivals, but other semiconductor companies are certainly taking the A-series of SoCs seriously because of the sheer number of sockets and high revenues those products generate.

At the time the A4 was announced, the burning question was how much of the design could be attributed to acquired design teams, especially PA Semi since they had been inside Apple longest. With an over-abundance of rumors by the time the A4 was available to the public, it was important to collate the physical evidence. Thus, our last look at the A4 consolidated some existing reverse engineering information, seasoned it with our own, and contemplated whether there was evidence of circuit design originating from Apple's PA Semi and Intrinsity acquisitions.

One conclusion was that there was evidence of Intrinsity design. We also concluded that the A4, on the block level, was very similar to Samsung's S5PC110. At that point the A4 did not appear all that unique. The simple finding that there were only two circuit blocks different between the A4 and S5PC110 spoke strongly to existing IP relationships.

The A5 should be different. Apple has had more time and Samsung has migrated to the Tegra 2 for their Galaxy 10.1.

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