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A9: Story of Apple's design ambitions

Posted: 13 Nov 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:A9? application processor? FinFET? fabrication?

To put simply, it is a story about a sixth generation application processor that is manufactured using a FinFET process. However, it also tells of a grand tale about Apple's semiconductor design ambitions.

Here we are. It is the sixth generation of Apple's A-series Application Processor family: the A9.

The first generation A4 appeared in 2010. It was found to have considerable commonality with a comparable Samsung processor. Moving forward, the A6 showed us a custom Apple-designed CPU. This was, and still is, seen as no small feat.

The next-generation A7 moved the family into 64bit computing. The A7 showed some interesting design decisions as there was no A7X. With the A7, Apple designed a single processor for the iPad Air and iPhone 5s even though these devices had a 4x difference in pixel counts. Further, the iPhone 5s now came with TouchID while the iPad Air did not.

From a manufacturing or fabrication perspective we have moved from the initial 45nm process of the A4 to the 14nm and 16nm processes of the dual-sourced A9.

Apple A4

Apple A4 system-on-chip architecture (left) observed by infrared imaging through the backside of an intact die. (Image courtesy of MuAnalysis.); Right: A9 die shot (Source: Chipworks)

At each generation of the A-series family there has been plenty of scepticism. There were those that said Apple should switch to Intel, switch to an Atom or switch to anything off-the-shelf. One RBC Capital Markets analyst even speculated that Intel might fabricate the A-series if Apple moved to Intel processors for the iPad. The real question though is whether the A-series processors and Apple's semiconductor design efforts in general have set Apple on a path of differentiating its end products. This was Steve's stated goal with the PA Semi acquisition. Interestingly, the other day a report had Google talking to semiconductor design houses about closer integration.

Do we already have the answer? It is time to look at the A9 in more detail.

Page 1: The road to A9

Page 2: What Apple said

Page 3: The die

Page 4: By the numbers

Page 5: Integration

Page 6: More details to come

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