Later this year, Apple will introduce its second generation iPad, reportedly with double the resolution and four times the pixels to process. That type of display upgrade would necessitate a big boost in graphics and video processing power.
The same source behind's AppleInsider's coverage of the secret licensing deal that occurred between Apple, Imagination Technologies and Samsung beginning back in 2008, and resulting in the new chips that powered the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4, is now indicating what can be expected from Apple's A4 replacement.
Apple's next custom System on a Chip is expected to jump from the SGX535 (which has been used since the iPhone 3GS) to the new SGX543 graphics and video core, which is said to offer around twice the processing power at the same clock speed. The new graphics core also supports OpenCL, used to offload general purpose computing tasks on the GPU for fast execution.
Faster video, HDMI
This speed boost applies not only to graphics, such as drawing polygons in a video game or rendering fonts in a productivity app, but video processing as well. The A4 includes hardware acceleration for video decoding and encoding, and both appear to be used to support high quality video conferencing in Apple's FaceTime on iPhone 4. FaceTime and a front facing camera did not make the cut in the original iPad, but are expected on the new iPad 2.
Faster video processing could also enable Apple to upgrade the iPad and iPhone 4 from VGA-style component video output to the more modern HDMI, which is already used by the new iOS-based Apple TV. Some high end smartphones and tablet devices already support HDMI output, although not flawlessly.
Apple TV has its own share of HDMI problems being reported by users, including handshaking problems that appear to affect nearly every Philips HDTV model and many Sony sets.
Multiple SGX graphics cores
A source familiar with Apple's graphics strategy says the company will not only be upgrading its video core, but also going to multiple cores, a feature that is designed into the SGX543 design. The most likely configuration of Apple's next custom chip is reportedly the SGX543MP2, which pairs two SGX543 cores to work as one, offering around four times the capability of the previous A4 in graphics and video tasks.
The SGX543 core is designed to parallel as many as 16 cores together, in a way that is transparent to higher level software, meaning that apps don't have to be rewritten specifically to benefit from the new speed boost. Imagination supplies intelligent core management that automatically determines the number of cores available and accelerates the graphic tasks by distributing them across the available cores.
Sony is rumored to be using the same multiple core SGX543 architecture in its forthcoming PlayStation Portable 2, potentially using four or eight cores, and likely driving the clock chip faster.
Multiple ARM Cortex-A9 cores
Outside of graphics, Apple will reportedly be using the multiple core ARM Cortex-A9 for general purpose processing.
RIM has drawn a lot of attention to its multiple core future as essential to deploying its new QNX-based PlayBook OS, first on a tablet device and eventually across the company's smartphones, although it couldn't give a timeframe of when that might happen. RIM's PlayBook is reported to use the TI OMAP 4 series SoC, which pairs a dual core Cortex-A9 with a PowerVR SGX540 series GPU.
Nvidia's Tegra 2 uses a similar dual core Cortex-A9 paired with the company's own ultra low power GeForce CPU core; that chip will be used used in the LG Optimus 2X, Motorola Xoom tablet and Atrix smartphone, and Asus Slider and Transformer netbooks, all of which are due later this year.
2010: Today's A4
Apple's existing A4 chip, used across all of its iOS products introduced in 2010 (iPad, iPhone 4, iPod touch fourth generation and Apple TV), pairs an ARM Cortex-A8 general purpose CPU core with an Imagination Technologies PowerVR 535 graphics and video processing core.
That chip appears to have been developed in cooperation with Samsung, using processor acceleration technology from Intrinsity, a company which Apple acquired last April.
Samsung sells its own chip with an identical ARM core and a similar overall design, under the model number S5PC110A01, also known as "Hummingbird." Samsung used this chip in the Samsung Wave smartphone, which uses the company's own Bada OS, as well as the similar Galaxy S line of Android models, including a range of smartphones sold as Captivate by AT&T, Vibrant by T-Mobile, Epic 4G by Sprint, Fascinate and Continuum by Verizon and marketed as the Google-branded Nexus S. The chip is also used in Samsung's Galaxy Tab and the forthcoming Galaxy Player.
Qualcomm' Snapdragon chips, used in HTC's Droid Incredible, and Texas Instruments' OMAP 3 series chips, used by Motorola's Droid series, the Palm Pre and Nokia's N95, both use nearly identical pairings of the Cortex-A8 and Power VR530 cores (Qualcomm uses it own Scorpion CPU core and its own GPU core named Adreno). Intel's mobile Atom processor also uses Power VR530 graphics core, pairing it with an x86-compaitible CPU.
Wild reports of the future of mobile silicon
It's important to note that the core specifications of a chip are not always directly proportional to its actual performance, and that what Apple does in software is often just as important than the hardware itself.
Nvidia's original Tegra chip was expected to blow the iPod touch out of the water when it appeared in Microsoft's Zune HD and subsequently the KIN, but that didn't happen.
On the other hand, over-exuberant reports also accompanied the A4. Last year, a report made prior to the A4's introduction, by the "Bright Side of News" blog, imagined that it might include a Cortex-A9 MPCore and an ARM-designed Mali 50-series GPU core. Jon Stokes of Ars Technica correctly described the A4 as being a single Cortex-A8 CPU and a PowerVR SGX GPU.
However, Stokes also added that it "isn't anything to write home about," and predicted that the A4 would skip on power by omitting camera processing features, making it unsuitable for use in a smartphone.
Another report, appearing in The New York Times last February, stated that Apple, Nvidia and Qualcomm were all working to develop their own ARM-based chips before noting that "it can cost these companies about $1 billion to create a smartphone chip from scratch." Developing an SoC based on licensed ARM designs is not "creating a chip from scratch," and does not cost $1 billion, but the article set off a flurry of reports that said Apple has spent $1 billion on the A4.