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Apple A10 Bruises Other CPUs

October 18, 2016

Author: Linley Gwennap

Apple’s investment in custom CPU design continues to pay off, as the new iPhone 7 delivers better performance than any other flagship smartphone and outscores even some low-end PCs. The phone uses a new processor chip, the A10 Fusion, that contains not one but two custom CPU designs, representing Apple’s first foray into the Big.Little approach that many other mobile processors employ. The massive Hurricane CPU improves performance by 35% over the previous-generation Twister, boosting both the clock speed and the per-clock performance. The smaller Zephyr CPU helps the iPhone 7 extend battery life compared with its predecessor.

Part of Apple’s advantage is its ability to spend money. Die area is expensive for a processor built in leading-edge 16nm FinFET technology, and Hurricane uses plenty of it. A single Hurricane CPU measures 4.18mm2, about twice the size of other high-end mobile CPUs. Because Apple sells phones, not chips, adding a few dollars of die cost is of little importance if the resulting high performance enables it to sell more $600 products.

The second new CPU core in the A10 is appropriately code-named Zephyr (a light breeze). It’s much smaller than Hurricane, suggesting that it uses a simpler microarchitecture. The die photo shows it has 32KB instruction and data caches instead of the 64KB caches in Hurricane. Excluding cache, however, Zephyr is nearly twice as large as Cortex-A53, indicating it’s more complex than that design.

Using die photos from our friends at Chipworks (now a TechInsights company), we took a close look at the new Apple designs along with other recent high-end mobile CPUs including ARM’s Cortex-A72 (as implemented in the Kirin 950/955), Qualcomm’s Kryo, and Samsung’s M1 (its first custom ARMv8 CPU). Die size is an important metric, since it drives both cost and power.

Subscribers can view the full article in the Microprocessor Report.

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