Apple iPad processor strategy exposed

One of the most interesting aspects of Apple's iPad is the microprocessor.

It is not an Intel Atom or core i7, nor is it based on an ARM core.


One of the most interesting aspects of Apple's iPad is the microprocessor.

It is not an Intel Atom or core i7, nor is it based on an ARM core.

Apple has designed its own 1GHz processor, the A4, which at a stroke calls into question its long-term commitment to using Intel and ARM-based chips in future iPhone, iPod and Mac products.

Yet there is a possibility that the A4 could include an ARM Cortex-A9 core.

Another feature is the likely inclusion of Imagination Technologies' Power VR SGX graphics processor core, which Apple licensed last year, in the iPad.

So as the iPad story unfolds, it is just possible that UK-designed processor technology could lie at the heart of arguably the most important mobile computing product of the year.

Not that we should be surprised. Apple made it clear a few years back that it was interested in developing its own low-power processor technology.

Back in 2008, Apple bought PA Semi, a fabless chip designer that specialises in low-power PowerPC microprocessors, for $278m.

Straightaway, the industry speculated about Apple's future work with Intel, the consumer-electronics giant's Macintosh processor provider.

See: iPad in pictures

Last year, rumours started to circulate that PA, now part of Apple, was using a Cortex-A9 core in a new processor design.

It seems that that was the A4, which is now being used to power the iPad.

The IC design acquisition was a long-planned move, with rumours that Apple was exploring the possible acquisition of PA Semi circulating in 2006.

That was just after Apple announced it would switch to Intel processors from IBM's PowerPC.

Ironically, PA Semi's processor design in 2008 was based on a PowerPC core.

The history of PA and its connections to ARM could back further.

PA Semi's founder was Dan Dobberpuhl, a designer at DEC of StrongARM chips, similar to ARM-based processors which have been used in the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Intel picked up the StrongARM technology when it took over DEC's microelectronics business, which had taken an architecture license from ARM.

Intel began dropping the StrongARM name in 2003, merging the line into its portfolio and rebranding the chips XScale.

Intel then sold the communications processor business, which included the XScale team, to Marvell for $600m June 2006.

We know Apple likes ARM. It uses a Samsung video processor based on an ARM core in the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Intel would still seem to be the first choice for processors for the MAC computer range.

See: Would an Apple netbook use ARM or Atom?

Designing the low power Intel Atom into an iPhone may not be on the agenda. But by all accounts Apple is satisfied with its processor relationship with Intel for desktops and laptops.

As PA's Doherty commented in 2008. "If Apple goes toward devices sized between their current MacBook Air and iPhone form factor, Intel might still have a shot at that.

Devices that might be, say, paperback-book sized, small hand tablets through legal-pad sized, might still be open to Intel's Atom processor and their MID strategy."

This story originally appeared on Electronics Weekly.

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