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Apple Turbocharges PowerVR GPU

November 8, 2016

Author: Linley Gwennap

According to our analysis, Apple has customized its version of Imagination’s PowerVR GPU to achieve very high clock speeds, likely around 900MHz. At its peak speed, the GPU outperforms that of all other high-end smartphone processors. The problem, however, is that it can’t sustain this peak performance for very long.

Apple’s A10 Fusion processor, which powers the new iPhone 7, uses the same PowerVR GT7600 GPU as last year’s A9 processor, again in a six-core configuration. Thus, the most likely method for improving performance is boosting the clock speed. The company promised a 50% graphics-performance gain between the iPhone 6s, which uses the A9 chip, and the new iPhone, so we postulate a 50% clock-speed increase, an unusually large jump from one generation to the next.

Some test results support Apple’s performance goal, but others do not. Futuremark’s Ice Storm Unlimited benchmark shows a 50.4% increase on the Graphics test but only 18.9% on the Physics test. More worrisome is that tests using GFXBench 3.1 (Manhattan) show an increase of only 7.8% on the median score, although the top score rises by 49.8%. These latter results mean some users are seeing the promised performance gains on GFXBench, but most are not. We believe the iPhone 7, to avoid overheating, throttles back from its top GPU speed after a minute or less, preventing it from achieving a high score for all users.

To push the graphics clock speed to such heights, we believe Apple implemented a custom version of the GT7600. Imagination permits such customization under an architecture license for its GPUs. This type of license, which certain other PowerVR customers also use, allows licensees to differentiate their GPU designs beyond simply changing the core count. Apple has hired an experienced GPU design team and is capable of making such changes.

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