Monday, October 2, 2017

Why Apple’s chips are faster than Qualcomm’s →

Gary Sims from Android Authority does a good job breaking down the reason why Apple’s A11 Bionic chip outperforms Qualcomm’s recent offerings.

Gary on the difference between Apple, Qualcomm, and others:

Apple designs processors that use ARM’s 64-bit instruction architecture. That means that Apple’s chips use the same underlying RISC architecture as Qualcomm, Samsung, Huawei and others. The difference is that Apple holds an architectural license with ARM, which allows it to design its own chips from scratch. […]

This is widely-known. Also, Apple’s purchase of PA Semi in 2008 has made significant contribution to their chip gains.

On A11 Bionic:

The six CPU cores are made up of two high-performance cores (codenamed Monsoon), and four energy-efficient cores (codenamed Mistral). Unlike the Apple A10, which also had a cluster of high performance cores and a cluster of energy-efficient cores, the A11 is able to use all six cores simultaneously.

Emphasis his. This is really key when it comes to the jump we’re seeing. By comparison, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 (an octa-core processor), can’t use all cores at the same time.

Geekbench Results

Gary compared the A11 Bionic, A10X Fusion, and Snapdragon 835 via Geekbench. The results aren’t even close.

Benchmark A11 Bionic A10X Fusion Snapdragon 835
Single Core 4260 3399 1998
Multi-Core 10221 5386 6765

These results really speak for themselves. You can say “they’re just benchmarks and not real-world comparisons”, but I’ve lost count of how many times Android-to-iPhone switchers say how fast, smooth, and seamless the experience is on iOS. This is largely thanks to Apple’s silicon. 1

On the difference between Apple’s cores (two points):

First, Apple had a head-start over just about everyone when it comes to 64-bit ARM based CPUs. Although ARM itself announced the Cortex-A57 back in October 2012, the proposed timeline was that ARM’s partners would ship the first processors during 2014. But Apple had a 64-bit ARM CPU in devices during 2013. The company has since managed to capitalize on that early lead and has produced a new CPU core design every year.

Second, Apple’s SoC efforts are tightly coupled to its handset releases. Designing a high performance mobile CPU is hard. It is hard for Apple; for ARM; for Qualcomm; for everyone. Because it is hard, it takes a long time. The Cortex-A57 was announced in October 2012, but it didn’t appear in a smartphone until April 2014. That is a long lead time. That lead time is changing.

For example: the Kirin 960 in the Huawei Mate 9 was released just 8 months after the ARM Mali-G71 GPU was delivered to Huawei. There is an argument that since Apple does everything in-house, then that tight coupling allows it to shave a few precious weeks off the development cycle.

Both of these points are highly important. Apple started pushing early for 64-bit architecture, which was called a marketing gimmick by a Qualcomm exec back in 2013, and even questioned by some Apple diehards. It paid off, as most will agree (including Gary) that Apple is now two years ahead of everyone else in this arena. Looks like Apple knew what they were doing after all. Go figure.

Bottom line: Apple has been making bespoke silicon for their products since 2013 and the tangible results are becoming even more apparent with each new release. Also, I’m willing to be Apple is saving a whole lot more than just “a few precious week” off the development cycle for these chips.

Steve always said Apple wanted to own as much of the technology stack as possible in order to make hardware and software that work in tandem. That is never more true than it is today, further taking into account the W-series chip for Bluetooth audio and the Watch’s S-series SIP. As for new territory, the A11 Bionic has a first-ever Apple-designed GPU. They are even rumored to be working on a chip to specifically tackle AI tasks. See a pattern emerging here?

Maybe before long, we’ll see Apple’s silicon replace Intel’s in the Mac. It’s been a long-standing theory, but one that is starting to sound more plausible with every A-series release. With these kinds of gains between generations, an ARM-powered Mac could be a force to be reckoned with.

  1. Software, too.