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CPU Size Leads Apple to Drop Intel

July 28, 2020

Author: Aakash Jani

Apple will move from Intel processors to in-house designs for its next-generation MacBooks, and a look inside the processors shows why. Apple’s custom Arm CPU, known as Lightning, measures just over half the size of Intel’s newest Sunny Cove design, according to our measurements, but the two CPUs deliver similar performance on the GeekBench test. Thus, the transition from Intel to in-house silicon will reduce Apple’s manufacturing costs without affecting performance.

While Apple is doubling down on its custom CPU investment, Samsung’s M5 will be its last custom CPU, as the company has announced plans to switch to standard Arm designs. We expect next year’s Galaxy S12 to feature a processor based on the new Cortex-X1. Samsung made the shift because its in-house design team was unable to stay ahead of Cortex’s performance. The M5 delivers about the same GeekBench score as Cortex-A77 but requires twice the die area.

Most premium smartphone processors implement a three-tier configuration of CPU cores, running the large ones for resource-heavy applications and the small ones for energy-efficient applications. Arm’s Cortex-A55 is the most common choice for the little core. It consumes 0.30mm2 and comes in a cluster of four. For the big core, Arm offers Cortex-A76 and Cortex-A77. The A77 is 19% larger than the A76 but only provides a 9% performance boost. With its greater area, the premium A77 is less area efficient than the A76.

The market-leading processors for premium smartphones are the Samsung Exynos 990, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, and the Huawei Kirin 990 5G. In the crowded mobile market, however, Apple’s A13 differentiates itself as a performance leader: it outscores all of these processors on Geekbench 5.0, the latest iteration of that popular test.

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