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Uncovering the mysterious A5

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

Keywords:A5? ipad 2? A4? iOS?

Let's look back again
Apple acquired PA Semi in April 2008. Since that time, there have been numerous occasions where it was stated the bolder foray into IC design was to "further differentiate" Apple's products from the competition. A recent example occurred during the Q1-2011 earnings call. Tim Cook commented, "But let me talk about it in general ... From our point of view on the design side, we design components where we believe we can innovate beyond what's available in the market. And the most recent example of this is the A4 chip. But with the A4 chip, we didn't feel like we had to invest in the fab itself and build the fab because we felt like they were good options in the market for doing that, but not good options in terms of buying a design, and so we really focused on design."

So did the A4 differentiate itself from the pack? With all the caveats associated with design time the pre-release consensus was that the A4 would implement a fair amount of external IP. Based on what we saw in our look at the A4 it does not appear that the A4 stood out from the pack. When we looked at the A4 there was considerable block level commonality with the S5PC110. In fact our analysis suggested there were only two analog blocks difference between the two parts. Thus it certainly did not stand out from the S5PC110. There was however one recent article suggesting Apple implemented hardware video accelerators in the A4.

The comment seemed almost too easy in light of the above discussion. If this is in fact true one might question whether this is somehow associated with Apple's stance on Flash for its iOS devices. However, such an accelerator would have been one of the digital blocks. Does this imply it was also present on the S5PC110? In the end, did the A4 differentiate itself from other SoCs? The simple fact of the similarities cited above suggests it did not. That said, we have nowhere close to enough data to make a broader or more conclusive statement.

Going back to the January 2010 launch of the A4, it is important to remember that it was being launched in a whole new platform, the iPad. If you are researching astronomy you can operate free of business considerations. Otherwise, the bottom line plays a central role. Apple is no different. The A4 was probably deliberately a very conservative part to minimize the risks associated with such a fundamental component of a new platform. There were just too many risks with the iPad.

Today, it seems strange to think of a time before iPad, but remember the consumer tablet was unheard of at that time, with most financial analysts still complaining Apple was missing the netbook revolution. Those voices have fallen strangely silent.

In the balance of 2010 the A4 went on to power all of Apple's iOS devices. Today each of these devices seems to be either dominating, leading or near leading their market space. At the moment the one possible outlier to this comment is the Apple TV as the market space does not appear as well defined at the moment. In light of comments above that the A4 is not a differentiating chip, it is obviously everything else in the iOS devices that is bringing about their success. This includes marketing, overall product design, system component design and integration, and probably most importantlysoftware.

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