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  5. Flashback: How the Apple M1 Evolved from Apple’s iPad Chipsets

Flashback: How the Apple M1 Evolved from Apple’s iPad Chipsets



Flashback: How the Apple M1 Evolved from Apple’s iPad Chipsets


Apple’s first custom chipset, the Apple A4, launched in 2010 with the original iPad and also appeared in the iPhone 4 a few months later. The A4 was made by Samsung and used an improved Cortex-A8 processor core called “Hummingbird”.

Hummingbird was co-developed by Samsung and Intrinsity and was announced in 2009 as “the world’s fastest ARM Cortex-A8 processor.” Multiple customizations had to be made for the core to reach its 1 GHz target. Apple acquired Intrinsity just a few months after introducing the iPad. And a few years earlier, he had acquired PA Semi.

After these key acquisitions, Apple went to work on internal chipset designs for use in its wearable products. Today’s story begins in 2012 when we focus on the updated X series of chips, which are the predecessors of the revolutionary Apple M1. AX chips are primarily used in iPads, but they also make an occasional appearance in Apple TV.

The second-generation iPad introduced the Apple A5 to the world in 2011. It still used out-of-the-box components, ARM’s Cortex-A9 CPU cores and Imagination’s PowerVR SGX543 GPU cores. The third-generation iPad arrived a year later with an improved version of that chip, dubbed the Apple A5X, which got the ball rolling.

The A5X doubled the GPU cores (from MP2 to MP4) and also introduced a new quad-channel memory controller, delivering data transfer speeds of up to 12.8GB/s, roughly triple the bandwidth of the A5X. TO 5.

Future AX chipsets would follow the same game plan: use the same hardware, just more. Tablets are larger than phones, which means they have larger batteries and more surface area to dissipate heat, so they can handle more powerful chipsets.

The Apple A6 is notable for featuring Apple’s first internally designed custom processor core, called “Swift.” The GPU still came from Imagination. The A6X was a bit of a disappointment because it only added one additional GPU core.

A few years later came the Apple A8X, the first in the series to expand the CPU and GPU hardware. It added an additional Typhoon core, for a total of three, while the number of GPU cores doubled to eight. The A9X reverted to the same CPU as the regular A9, but that was the last time; from then on, all AX chipsets would have larger CPUs.

The 2016 Apple A10 chipset was the company’s first to adopt a big.LITTLE architecture. It had two large Hurricane cores and two small Zephyr cores. A year later, the A10X came with three of each, while doubling the number of GPU cores.

Small cores are great for efficiency, but having more than a few doesn’t add much performance. That’s why the 2018 Apple A12X chipset only doubled the large number of processor cores (to four), while using the same number of small cores (also four). The GPU was upgraded to a 7-core design, an 8-core version would arrive in 2020 as the Apple A12Z.

Fast-forward to 2020: After years of using Intel processors, Apple said goodbye to them and announced the first batch of Apple M1-powered Macs. It also marked a transition from x86 to ARM, the same ARM instruction set that powered your iPhones and iPads.

And it’s no coincidence that the Apple M1 used slightly modified versions of the components of the A14 (the chip inside the iPhone 12 and 4th-generation iPad Air): the large Firestorm and small Icestorm cores, the same GPU architecture too.

But as we have already seen, the trick to making the chipset faster is to add more cores. The M1 doubled the big CPU cores and doubled the GPU (although it did offer chips with 7-core GPUs as a cost-cutting measure). As with the 12X, the small processor cores were not affected. It helped that Apple designs already led the way in performance and efficiency (TSMC deserves some credit for that), so the M1 handles office tasks with ease, even when passively cooled.

The Apple M2 chipset that was announced earlier this month follows the same pattern, although this time it’s based on the A15 (iPhone 13) chipset. The M1 had Pro, Max and Ultra variants, the M2 certainly will too.

These just use different multipliers, for example the M1 Pro has 50% or 100% more large CPU cores than the base M1 and twice as many GPU cores. The Pro has reduced the small cores to two, but as mentioned above, only a few are needed. The Max uses the same CPU formula, but offers 3-4x more GPU cores than the base M1. The Ultra doubles the CPU and GPU resources (it’s actually made up of two Pro chips).

2012/2012 Apple A5 A5X Large CPU Cores 2x Cortex-A9 2x Cortex-A9 Small CPU Cores – – GPU SGX543 MP2 SGX543 MP4 2012 Apple A6 A6X Large CPU Cores 2x Swift 2x Swift Small CPU Cores – – GPU SGX543 MP3 SGX554 MP4 2014 Apple A8 Apple A8X Large CPU Cores 2x Typhoon 3x Typhoon Small CPU Cores – – GPU 4-core 6XT 8-core 6XT 2015 Apple A9 Apple A9X Large CPU Cores 2x Twister 2x Twister Small CPU Cores – – GPU 7XT 6-core 7XT 12-core 2016/2017 Apple A10 Apple A10X Large CPU Cores 2x Hurricane 3x Hurricane Small CPU Cores 2x Zephyr 3x Zephyr GPU 7XT GT 6-core 12-core 2018/2020 Apple A12 Apple A12X/A12Z Cores Large CPU Cores 2x Vortex 4x Vortex Small CPU Cores 4x Tempest 4x Tempest GPU G11P 4 Core 7/8 Core 2020 Apple A14 Apple M1 Big CPU Core 2x Firestorm 4x Firestorm Small CPU Core 4x Icestorm 4x Icestorm Apple GPU 4 Core Apple 7/8 Core 2021/2022 Apple A15 Apple M2 Big CPU Cores 2x Avala nche 4x Avalanche Small CPU cores 4x Blizzard 4x Blizzard GPU 4 cores 8/10 cores

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