A8: Apple’s First 20nm SoC

As has been customary for every iPhone launch since the company began publicly naming their SoCs, Apple has once again rolled out a new SoC for their latest line of phones. With the launch of the iPhone 6 series Apple is now up to their eight generation SoC, the appropriately named A8.

After a period of rapid change with the A6 and A7 SoCs – which introduced Apple’s first custom CPU design (Swift) and the first ARMv8 AArch64 design (Cyclone) respectively – A8 is a more structured and straightforward evolution of Apple’s SoC designs. Which is not to say that Apple hasn’t been busy tweaking their designs to extract ever-improved performance and power efficiency, as we’ll see, but our examination of A8 has not uncovered the same kind of radical changes that defined A6 and A7.

The heart and soul of A8 is as always the CPU and GPU. We’ll be taking a look at each of these individually in a moment, but from a high level both of these are evolutions of their predecessors found in A7. Apple’s GPU of choice remains Imagination’s PowerVR, having upgraded from the Series6 based G6430 to Imagination’s newer GX6450 design. Meanwhile Apple continues to develop their own CPUs and A8 packs their latest design, which is an enhanced version of the Cyclone core first introduced in A7.

Stepping away from the GPU and CPU for the moment, the biggest change about A8 is that it’s smaller. As discovered by Chipworks, A8 is being fabricated on TSMC’s new 20nm process, making the iPhone 6 among the first smartphones to be shipped with a 20nm SoC.

This move to 20nm is not unexpected, but nonetheless it is considerable for a couple of reasons. The first is that this means Apple has moved production over to TSMC’s 20nm HKMG Planar process, making this the first time an Apple SoC has been manufactured anywhere but a Samsung fab. There are numerous possible reasons for this – and not every reason needs to be technical – but from a process development standpoint it’s important to note that over the last few generations TSMC has been the leader among contract foundries, being the first to get new processes up and running for volume production.

Apple A8 vs A7 SoCs
  Apple A8 (2014) Apple A7 (2013)
Manufacturing Process TSMC 20nm HKMG Samsung 28nm HKMG
Die Size 89mm2 102mm2
Transistor Count ~2B "Over 1B"
CPU 2 x Apple Enhanced Cyclone
ARMv8 64-bit cores
2 x Apple Cyclone
ARMv8 64-bit cores
GPU IMG PowerVR GX6450 IMG PowerVR G6430

This move is also quite considerable because it means for the first time Apple is manufacturing their SoCs on a bleeding edge manufacturing process. Prior to this Apple has been slow to utilize new manufacturing processes, only finally utilizing a 28nm process in late 2013 for A7 over a year after 28nm first became available. The fact that we are seeing a 20nm SoC from Apple at a time when almost everyone else is still on 28nm indicates just how much the market has shifted over the last few years, and how Apple’s SoC development is now synchronized with the very edge of semiconductor fabrication technology.

Finally, the switch to 20nm is interesting because after the last couple of generations being so-called “half node” jumps – 45nm to 40nm to 32nm to 28nm – the jump from 28nm to 20nm is a full node jump (note that Apple didn't ever use 40nm, however). This means we are seeing a larger increase in transistor density than in the previous generations, and ideally a larger decrease in power consumption as well.

In practice TSMC’s 20nm process is going to be a mixed bag; it can offer 30% higher speeds, 1.9x the density, or 25% less power consumption than their 28nm process, but not all three at once. In particular power consumption and speeds will be directly opposed, so any use of higher clock speeds will eat into power consumption improvements. This of course gets murkier once we’re comparing TSMC to Samsung, but the principle of clock speed/power tradeoffs remains the same regardless.

Not accounting for minor differences between TSMC and Samsung, in an ideal case Apple is looking at 51% area scaling (the same design on 20nm can be no smaller than 51% of the die area at 28nm). In reality, nothing ever scales perfectly so the density gains will depend on the kind of I/C being laid down (logic, SRAM, etc.). For the complete chip a 60-70% scaling factor is going to be a better approximation, which for Apple means they’ve picked up a lot room to spend on new functionality and reducing their overall die size.

Apple SoC Evolution
  CPU Perf GPU Perf Die Size Transistors Process
A5 ~13x ~20x 122m2 <1B 45nm
A6 ~26x ~34x 97mm2 <1B 32nm
A7 40x 56x 102mm2 >1B 28nm
A8 50x 84x 89mm2 ~2B 20nm

Meanwhile once again this year Apple opened up on die size and transistor counts. A8 weighs in at around 2 billion transistors, as opposed to the “over 1 billion” transistors found on A7. We also have the die size for A8 – 89mm2 – which is some 13% smaller than A7’s 102mm2 die. This makes it clear that Apple has chosen to split their transistor density improvements between adding features/performance and reducing their size, rather than going all-in on either direction.

In the case of using a bleeding edge node this is generally a good call, as Apple and TSMC will need to deal with the fact that chip yields at 20nm will not be as good as they are on the highly mature 28nm process. With lower chip yields, a smaller die will offset some of those yield losses by reducing the number of manufacturing flaws any given die touches, improving the overall yield.

A8 With POP RAM Removed

Moving on, looking at A8 we can see that Apple’s memory subsystem design has not significantly changed from A7. Once again Apple has placed an SRAM cache on the chip to service both the CPU and the GPU. Based on an examination of the die and of latency numbers, this L3 SRAM cache remains unchanged from A7 at 4MB. Meanwhile we also find a series of SDRAM interfaces which drive the A8’s package-on-package (POP) based main memory. Based on teardowns from iFixit, Apple is using 1GB of LPDDR3-1600, the same speed grade of LPDDR3 and capacity that they used for the iPhone 5s. iFixit has found both Hynix and Elpida memory in their phones, so Apple is once again using multiple sources for their RAM.

When we start poking at memory bandwidth we find that memory bandwidths are consistently higher than on A7, but only ever so slightly. This points to Apple having worked out further optimizations to make better use of the memory bandwidth they have available, since as we’ve previously determined they’re still using LPDDR3-1600 speeds.

Geekbench 3 Memory Bandwidth Comparison (1 thread)
  Stream Copy Stream Scale Stream Add Stream Triad
Apple A8 1.4GHz 9.08 GB/s 5.37 GB/s 5.76 GB/s 5.78 GB/s
Apple A7 1.3GHz 8.34 GB/s 5.21 GB/s 5.67 GB/s 5.69 GB/s
A8 Advantage 9% 3% 2% 2%

The Stream Copy score ends up being the biggest gain at 9%. Otherwise the rest of the benchmarks only show 2-3% memory bandwidth increases.

More interesting is memory latency, which shows some unexpected improvements once we get out of the L1 and L2 caches. At both the 1MB – 4MB region of the SRAM and 6MB+ region of main memory, memory latency is consistently lower on A8 versus A7. In both cases we’re looking at latencies about 20ns faster than A7. This identical 20ns gain tells us that that Apple is still doing main memory lookups after the L3 lookup fails, and this in turn means the 20ns gain we’re seeing is due to L3 cache optimizations. We have a couple of ideas for how Apple could have improved L3 latency by nearly 20% like this, but at this time with Apple staying quiet on their architecture like usual, it’s not apparent which of these ideas are the correct ones.

Turning our eyes back to A8 one final time, we find that while a lot of die space is occupied by the CPU, GPU, and SRAM (as we’d expect), there is also quite a bit of space occupied by other blocks Apple has integrated into their design. Without already knowing what you’re looking for these blocks are difficult to identify, but even without being able to do this we have a reasonable idea of what blocks Apple has integrated. Among these we’ll find audio controllers, USB controllers, video encoders/decoders, flash memory controllers, the camera ISP, and of course all kinds of interconnect.

All of these blocks are fixed function hardware (or at best, limited flexibility DSPs), which are equally important to not only the A8’s functionality but power efficiency. By assigning tasks to dedicated hardware Apple does spend some die space on that hardware, but in return these blocks are more efficient than doing those tasks entirely in software. Hence Apple (and SoC designers in general) have a strong incentive to offload as much work as possible to keep power consumption in check. This move towards more fixed function hardware is part of a general “wheel of reincarnation” cycle that has been a constant in processor design over the years, which sees a continuous shift between fixed function and programmable hardware. SoCs, for the most part, are still going towards fixed function hardware, and this should continue for a while yet.

In any case, while we can’t identify individual blocks on A8 we do know that Apple has added a few features to A8 that are present in some form or another among these blocks. New to A8 is some mix of H.265 (HEVC) hardware, which would be necessary to enable the FaceTime over H.265 functionality that is being introduced on the iPhone 6. Apple’s “desktop class scaler” that is used for handling non-native resolution applications and for down-sampling the internal rendering resolution of the iPhone 6 Plus would also be present here.

Introduction A8’s CPU: What Comes After Cyclone?
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  • bobobobo - Tuesday, September 30, 2014 - link

    solid phone, solid improvement.
  • AppleCrappleHater2 - Tuesday, September 30, 2014 - link

    Worship the holy apple.

    The apple way, selling over expensive crap to stupid consumers that like to
    get robbed.

    This has been a disastrous launch in every respect. The iwatch is such an
    ugly piece of crap, it is truly unbelievable how a company, formerly known for
    its remarkable design, dares to put out such a crap ton of shit. Some
    characteristics are glaringly obvious and inherent to it: over expensive,
    hardly innovative, limited functionality and usability (need of an iPhone to
    make it work), looks exactly like a toy watch and so on.

    There are of course way better smart watches out there, especially from the
    likes of Samsung, Sony, Motorola, Asus, LG, simply put, there is no need for
    another piece of over expensive junk.

    The iPhone 6 is technologically stuck in pre-2011 times, a base model with
    a capacity of 16GB without the possibility to use SD cards isn't even funny
    anymore. The screen resolution is horrendous, it isn't water proof, shock and
    dust resistant, it offers nothing innovative, just some incremental
    updates over its predecessor, both lacking severely behind their competitors at
    their respective launch dates.

    Now the Iphone 6 Plus offers a „Retina HD“ screen, full 1920x1080p, oh wow,
    where have you been for the past 4 years apple, talk about trailing behind.
    That’s pathetic. The interesting thing about that is the fact that apple
    always manages to sell backwards oriented, outdated crap to its user base, all
    while pretending to be an innovative technology leader. The similarities
    regarding any form of sectarian cult are striking.

    You gotta love how Apple always comes up with new marketing bullshit terms,
    aka "Retina HD", with the intention to manipulate its users while preventing easy
    comparisons with its competitors by withholding the actual specs. Apparently it’s
    not enough to have a 1080p screen, you have to call it "Retina HD" to make those
    suckers buy it, otherwise someone could look at the 4K Amoled and Oled screens
    form LG and Samsung devices and get outright disappointed. Same goes for
    everything else. Every outdated „feature“ needs to get its own marketing label
    to persuade buyers with crappy „experience“ and „usability“ ads, while covering
    the truth with marketing gibberish, knowing full well that only a fraction of
    aforementioned buyers cares to look at the facts and dares to compare them.

    Car engines come to mind. For comparisons shake let’s look at a 1.0 liter, turbo
    charged petrol engine and a V8 compressor. What’s better should be obvious, but
    by calling the former an „ecobooster“, thus giving it a special marketing label,
    this joke becomes a „feature“, something positive that can be added tot the list
    of features of a car.

    By doing so a negative aspect is transformed into a positive one, the
    reality is distorted, non tech savvy buyers are manipulated and comparisons are
    made more difficult (another layer of marketing bullshit to overcome), well done
    marketing department. You see , if something is seriously lacking (of course for
    profit, what else), don’t bother explaining, just give it a nice marketing term, distort
    reality, make it a feature and call it a day. Fuck that!!

    FACT: Apple has been forced to copy Android in style and size for
    years because people abandoned their tired, moribund and fossilized
    devices for superior and innovative Android devices.

    Steve Jobs said no one should want a 7" tablet until everyone went and bought
    Android devices forcing Apple to copycat with the iPad Mini. Apple
    didn't think anyone wanted a phone screen larger than a business card
    until they all bought Androids thus forcing the arrival this week of the
    iPhone Galaxy and iPhone Galaxy Note clone phones.

    Swipe down notifications that don't interfere? Copied from Android and WebOS. Siri?
    Bought and ruined from a private developer; Google Now crushes it.
    3rd-party keyboards? Welcome to 2010, iChumps! Widgets? Welcome to 2009
    except you can't place them on your home screen. Live wallpapers and
    hidden icons? Maybe Apple will get around to copying those in iOS X in
    2016. Who knows.

    Apple lacks creativity and honest people acknowledge it. Steve Jobs gets credited as an
    innovator when all he was, was a huckster who'd spot someone else's tech, polish it up nicely,
    then slap a gnawed fruit logo on the back, charge a premium price and
    wait for the rubes like Jim Smith to hand over their cash like the good
    iSheep they are.

    But after that initial iteration, Apple is incapable of actually innovating something new.
    They literally cannot make a product until someone else shows them how and they copy it.
    They are also unable refine things because they believe to improve is to
    admit something was imperfect the first time. (This is why QuickTime 4
    had a legendarily terrible UI that was never changed through QT7 a
    decade later.) All they can do is make things incrementally thinner or
    faster but it's just minor refinements since they can't invest their way
    out of a wet paper bag.

    For all their squealing about Retina displays, they never even had a HD display until now;
    8th time is the charm, though you need the iPhone Galaxy Note to get the 1080p that many Android
    users have had for at least a year and is now considered
    bare-minimum spec. At the rate Apple drags along, QHD screens should
    arrive in 2018. Maybe. A graphic went around after the reveal comparing
    the iPhone Galaxy to the Nexus 4 from 2012. Exactly.

    The Apple Iphone 1 and Ipad 1 might have been innovative at their time,
    but since then, the bitten apple has been continuously rotting from the inside
    outwards, always swarmed by millions of Iworms which regale themselves with its
    rotten flesh, not forgetting all other Americans who support apple by means of
    their tax dollars to finance its bought US Treasury/Government bond interest rates.

    Last but not least, every Apple product includes a direct hotlink to the NSA,
    free of charge, something that might make it a good value, after all.

    Ceterum censeo Applem esse delendam.
  • esterhasz - Tuesday, September 30, 2014 - link

    Since we're quoting Cato today, here's a good one: "grasp the subject, the words will follow".
  • uhuznaa - Tuesday, September 30, 2014 - link

    You seem to be a tiny bit obsessed.
  • iphone6splus - Tuesday, September 30, 2014 - link

    Yet, he didn't comment on Touch ID.
  • kevin_newell - Thursday, October 9, 2014 - link

    Apple is lagging far behind it's competitors both in user satisfaction (source: http://www.consumertop.com/best-phone-guide/) and innovation. I mean, who was first with large screens and phone cameras that work well in low light? It sure wasn't Apple.
  • Caliko - Tuesday, October 6, 2015 - link

    A large iPhone is NOT innovation.

    Sorry iPhoney fan.
  • lowtolerance - Tuesday, September 30, 2014 - link

    I can recommend some good therapists. You need one.
  • melgross - Tuesday, September 30, 2014 - link

    You sir, are a complete idiot!
  • Gondalf - Tuesday, September 30, 2014 - link

    To be fair, a >$600 phone deserves a good LCD.....at least good as competitors, more ram and a little SD expansion slot. Plain and simple. This is not a matter of "idiocy"

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