Apple's new A7 CPU dissected to reveal 28nm manufacturing process

Posted:
in iPhone edited January 2014
The new silicon found in Apple's iPhone 5s has been viewed under a microscope, revealing some of the secrets of the custom-built A7 processor and M7 motion co-processor.

Chipworks
Cross-section of the new A7 CPU. Photo via iFixit.


Chipworks and iFixit published the results of their extensive teardown on Tuesday of the A7 CPU, M7 chip, and iSight camera found inside the iPhone 5s. Chipworks was able to take layers off of the semiconductors by blasting them with an "Ion Beam Etcher," then viewing them with a transmission electron microscope.

The analysis revealed that the Samsung-manufactured chip is using the company's 28-nanometer Hi K metal Gate process. That's the same process as used by the eight-core Samsung Exynos 5410, which is the flagship CPU found in the South Korean company's latest Galaxy-branded devices.

The "gate pitch," or distance between each transistor, inside the A7 is 114 nanometers, smaller than the 123-nanometer distance found in the A6. That allows Apple to pack as much power as the A6 into an area 77 percent as large.

But the A7 chip uses an even larger amount of total space than the A6, which means the extra space offered by the 28-nanometer process has allowed Apple to significantly improve the performance of its latest mobile processor.

Chipworks
The new M7 motion co-processor. Photo via iFixit.


As for the M7 motion co-processor found in the iPhone 5s, Chipworks found that the part is an ARM Cortex-M3 microcontroller. It collects info from a Bosch Sensortech BMA220 3-axis accelerometer, STMicroelectronics 3-axis gyroscope, and AKM AK8963 3-axis magnetometer.

The silicon experts noted that collecting motion data with the A7 processor would be "mega-overkill." As a result, the new M7 allows low-power observation of the motion sensing capabilities of the iPhone 5s.

Also analyzed was the new iSight camera, revealing the larger active pixel area offered by the improved sensors. The analysis also found that the iPhone 5s features the same Wi-Fi module as last year's iPhone 5, while the new Qualcomm 4G LTE modem runs on a two-chip system with parts from Samsung.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 54
    tipootipoo Posts: 1,056member

    Above the GPU blocks, there appears to be an sRAM block to my eyes. That's interesting, as the Wii U GPU also has that on the GPU die in addition to its larger slower eDRAM. I wonder what the performance implications are, and how big that is. I wonder if it could be used for the framebuffer for the GPU, or if it serves another function? It's too far from the CPU to seemingly be related to that. Too much latency for no reason.

  • Reply 2 of 54
    irelandireland Posts: 17,623member
    Will an A-series chip make it into a MacBook Air in the next 5 years? That's the question.

    And will Apple get into the fab business?
  • Reply 3 of 54
    gwmacgwmac Posts: 1,797member

    I am really curious why they didn't go with the Qualcomm RF360 which would allow far fewer SKU's. Was the RF360 delayed or simply not ready to be produced in such large quantities? For anyone not familiar with it here you go. It basically is a rosetta stone for all bands and frequencies in one radio chip so Apple could make one model to run on any carrier instead of multiple ones like they do now. 

     

    http://www.qualcomm.com/media/releases/2013/02/21/qualcomm-rf360-front-end-solution-enables-single-global-lte-design-next

     

    http://www.zdnet.com/qualcomms-rf360-puts-40-mobile-bands-onto-a-single-chip-7000011682/

     

    The A7 seems very impressive. Even though a dual core at 1.3Ghz on paper at least it might seem to be much slower than all though 1.8 and even 2GHz and faster quad cores running in the latest Androids I think it will hold it's own is actual real world use. To the uninformed public simply looking at raw numbers though they might think the competition is much faster even if it is not. Since Apple doesn't advertise the CPU speed though most won't even have a clue but no doubt Verizon, Bestbuy and other employees will make sure they know since they still seem to push other phones over Apple for higher commissions. 

  • Reply 4 of 54
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post



    The analysis revealed that the Samsung-manufactured chip is using the company's 28-nanometer Hi K metal Gate process. That's the same process as used by the eight-core Samsung Exynos 5410, which is the flagship CPU found in the South Korean company's latest Galaxy-branded devices.



     The analysis also found that the iPhone 5s features the same Wi-Fi module as last year's iPhone 5, while the new Qualcomm 4G LTE modem runs on a two-chip system with parts from Samsung.

     

    Oh man, poor DED...

     

    Hopefully next year Apple can cut 'em loose. 

  • Reply 5 of 54
    tipootipoo Posts: 1,056member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post



    Will an A-series chip make it into a MacBook Air in the next 5 years? That's the question.



    And will Apple get into the fab business?

     

    Giving the iPad a Surface like keyboard and trackpad dock, I can see. 



    Going the other way, and taking the x86 chip out of the Air? No, can't see that. Going from PPC to x86 made sense because the windows universe already used it and it had the widest compatibility. Going the other way and dumping x86 compatibility in favor of ARM doesn't make much sense. Apple clearly has some chip designing chops, but ARM is still quite a ways away from Haswell ULV chips let alone Broadwell and so on, Intel keeps moving up too. 

  • Reply 6 of 54

    My iPad 3 is starting to feel a bit weak, especially when using certain apps. And while I do like iOS 7, I do notice that it is slightly more processor intensive than iOS 6. 

     

    I look forward to getting my new iPad 5 next month, which will have even more power than the iPhone 5s A7 chip, since it will be clocked higher.

  • Reply 7 of 54
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post



    Will an A-series chip make it into a MacBook Air in the next 5 years? That's the question.



    And will Apple get into the fab business?

    maybe.  Minimally, there will be internal 'show this baby to Intel before you start negotiating on the haswell follow-on chip' prototype to use as a negotiation chip.  Intel has to respect the fact that Apple has potential low cost options (no intel tax) via ARM.

     

    No.  Apple will always leave the Fab to someone else.  For the similar reasons… It's too expensive to get into the business, and they can play the fab players against each other on discounting the bulk creation of their wafers.  They can outsource that risk, and hedge by outsourcing (or threatening) to multiple suppliers.  Being the cash rich (we'll pay up front but with performance penalties if you fail) and Fabless keeps Apple's CapEx focussed on the accelerating better end product, and less on expensive, but effectively a competitive commodity component manufacturing capability.  

     

     

    While I'm surprised Samsung is building the A7 chips, They may not be building ALL the chips (maybe all the China Mobile A7s are TMSC;-) ), or they may not be making OTHER chips (A6X, A7X).   Also, This maybe tacit proof that the lawsuits have caused a some 'clean room' separation from the chip division and the mobile division in Samsung.   From their reaction to the 64 bit aspect of the A7, it may be several months (and months is forever in consumer mobile) before they have a competing integrated solution (CPU, OS, Apps all optimized for 64bit).   

  • Reply 8 of 54

    Did they get that right 

     

    Quote:


    The analysis revealed that the Samsung-manufactured chip is using the company's 28-nanometer Hi K metal Gate process.


     

    So Apple makes a 64 bits processor and Samsung phone business had no clue was was happening across the street in the Fab.

  • Reply 9 of 54
    tipootipoo Posts: 1,056member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Maestro64 View Post

     

    Did they get that right 

     

     

    So Apple makes a 64 bits processor and Samsung phone business had no clue was was happening across the street in the Fab.


     

    Who says they have no clue? Just, a lot of it is patent protected. You know, you or I, or especially the likes of AMD, Intel, Nvidia, etc, can decap competitors processors and look at them under a microscope to understand an overview of how they work, it's why they're all fairly straightforward about talking about new architectures when they're out, everyone would find out anyways. But it's the patents that protect doing things certain ways. 

  • Reply 10 of 54
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Maestro64 View Post

     

    Did they get that right 

     

     

    So Apple makes a 64 bits processor and Samsung phone business had no clue was was happening across the street in the Fab.


     

    It's called an NDA.

  • Reply 11 of 54
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by tipoo View Post

     

     

    Giving the iPad a Surface like keyboard and trackpad dock, I can see. 


    Why? Because the Surface was such a momentous success?

     

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Maestro64 View Post

     

    Did they get that right 

     

     

    So Apple makes a 64 bits processor and Samsung phone business had no clue was was happening across the street in the Fab.


     

    ?To be fair, their fab is not "across the street" it's halfway across the globe. I know since I live less than a mile from the fab in Austin.

  • Reply 12 of 54
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by tipoo View Post

     

     

    Giving the iPad a Surface like keyboard and trackpad dock, I can see. 



    Going the other way, and taking the x86 chip out of the Air? No, can't see that. Going from PPC to x86 made sense because the windows universe already used it and it had the widest compatibility. Going the other way and dumping x86 compatibility in favor of ARM doesn't make much sense. Apple clearly has some chip designing chops, but ARM is still quite a ways away from Haswell ULV chips let alone Broadwell and so on, Intel keeps moving up too. 


     

    in the next 1-3 years, agreed.  But always having an MBA prototype that is AxX powered as you walk into a meeting with Intel for long term 'partnership' discussions  is a strong bargaining chip.   Apple is the big consumer of high end Intel x86 chips… and controls it's own ARM chip development.  It makes for good negotiations on both pricing and capabilities (for stuff like GPUs).

     


    Your point on 'windows universe already used it….'  what happens when 40% of the 'personal computers' sold are ARM chip powered?  then 50%…. And then Windows 9 comes out fully ARMed…   I will argue that the 'Intel Inside' Sticker may be a 'stamp tax' for a lot of consumers (I just need to watch netflix, run a Web Browser, and do some spreadsheets).   


     


    If you're apple, we're not long until the converse of that statement… '1Billion iOS devices already use it [A-Series]' is true and iOS is built using the same and similar OSX components running on Intel [read: OSX on ARM should be trivial, especially without the comets tail of macOS compatibility].   At what point does the economics cross over?


     


    It may be somewhat sacreligous, but in 5 years, most of the compute power you 'need' will be a network hop away.  That may always be big iron Intel, but on a laptop, when all apps are effectively 'cloud enabled?'  At what point is your primary computing bottleneck the size of your AWS instance and the applications' QoS setting  via your ISP?
  • Reply 13 of 54
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by TheOtherGeoff View Post

     

     

     

    While I'm surprised Samsung is building the A7 chips, They may not be building ALL the chips (maybe all the China Mobile A7s are TMSC;-) ), or they may not be making OTHER chips (A6X, A7X).  


    Pretty sure Samsung is already making the A6X.  A7X if produced would most likely come from Samsung just because of the similarities. 

    I don't see how they would split A7 between 2 different fabs, it's not just simply a 1:1 copy, a lot of work would need to be done to integrate with TSMC's fab/process. Also any split would undoubtedly effect unit price, why would apple compromise their margin and increase their complexity by splitting across 2 different fabs? Doesn't make sense to me.

    A8 and onwards, who knows. 

  • Reply 14 of 54
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by patpatpat View Post

     

     

    It's called an NDA.


     

    Actually, I think it's called a 'court order' in this case.  There were NDAs before, My guess is that Samsung is enjoined by both contractual penalty and court decree that if Apple 'sniffs' a leak, they can come down with a subpoena for all of Samsung's internal communications, and slap them with a judicially approved fine that would be a serious penalty if found twice failing to honor the NDA.   

     

    Samsung Chip Fabs need to run at full capacity to be profitable.  Apple is a big player. Samsung doesn't want to lose this business.  the TMSC rumor is likely true to the extent that 'some' apple business is in their Fab, and Samsung can infer it from the orders they are receiving. (that was why the Analysts felt Apple was slumping on delivery… All their spies were in Samsung's pipeline). 
  • Reply 15 of 54
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by TheOtherGeoff View Post

     

     

    Actually, I think it's called a 'court order' in this case.  There were NDAs before, My guess is that Samsung is enjoined by both contractual penalty and court decree that if Apple 'sniffs' a leak, they can come down with a subpoena for all of Samsung's internal communications, and slap them with a judicially approved fine that would be a serious penalty if found twice failing to honor the NDA.  


    You seem to be implying that Samsung Semiconductor has broken the apple NDA before? Did I miss something?

  • Reply 16 of 54
    rogifanrogifan Posts: 10,669member
    apple ][ wrote: »
    My iPad 3 is starting to feel a bit weak, especially when using certain apps. And while I do like iOS 7, I do notice that it is slightly more processor intensive than iOS 6. 

    I look forward to getting my new iPad 5 next month, which will have even more power than the iPhone 5s A7 chip, since it will be clocked higher.
    I haven't installed iOS 7 on my iPad for this reason. I'll wait until the new iPads come out.
  • Reply 17 of 54
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Rogifan View Post





    I haven't installed iOS 7 on my iPad for this reason. I'll wait until the new iPads come out.

     

    I haven't noticed any slowdown. Though I find the screen 'zoom' in/out of apps to be quite annoying.

  • Reply 18 of 54
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Maestro64 View Post

     

    So Apple makes a 64 bits processor and Samsung phone business had no clue was was happening across the street in the Fab.


     

    Problem is, Samsung don't have an internal R&D team for designing new ARM cores, they are only allow to use standard core design in their SoC since Apple bought their R&D team with their architectural license (Intrinsity) 3 years ago. 

  • Reply 19 of 54
    jragostajragosta Posts: 10,473member
    mikejones wrote: »
    ?To be fair, their fab is not "across the street" it's halfway across the globe. I know since I live less than a mile from the fab in Austin.

    They don't have access to phones or email at Samsung?
    rogifan wrote: »
    I haven't installed iOS 7 on my iPad for this reason. I'll wait until the new iPads come out.

    I don't know about the iPad, but iOS 7 on my iPhone 5 is every bit as fast as iOS 6 was. I don't see any difference at all.
  • Reply 20 of 54
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Rogifan View Post





    I haven't installed iOS 7 on my iPad for this reason. I'll wait until the new iPads come out.

     

    I don't regret updating to iOS 7. The fresh, new look and added features are well worth it, IMO.

     


    I feel that my iPad 3 has been a little weak for some time now, even when I was on iOS 6. For doing most tasks, the iPad 3 still rocks. I only notice that I could use a bit more power when using certain, very CPU heavy apps.
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