Apple's A6X: The iPad gets a serious CPU upgrade

Apple's A6X: The iPad gets a serious CPU upgrade

Summary: Apple didn't just unveil the iPad mini today, it also refreshed the iPad, and at the core of that refresh is a new chip -- the A6X processor.

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One of the surprise announcements to come out of today's Apple event was the unveiling of a fourth-generation iPad, which Apple is now called the "iPad with Retina display".

And the biggest surprise of that announcement was the revelation that processor performance has been doubled.

The new A6X chip inside the iPad 4 (yes, I'm calling it that) is a new dual-core CPU combined with quad-core graphics. According to Apple, it is up to twice as fast as the previous-generation A5X chip.

Because this is a SoC (System-on-a-Chip) design, incorporating a CPU and a GPU on the same die, it means that both personas have received an upgrade.

All these processor improvements don't come at the cost of battery life either. The iPad 4 gets the same 10 hours of battery life from the same 42.5 watt-hours battery that the iPad 3 enjoyed.

We'll have to wait for a teardown of the A6X before we know for sure what's inside it. But if the A6 processor inside the iPhone 5 is anything to go by, it's likely to be a very custom piece of kit.

Apple also claims to have improved image signal processing capabilities of the A6X chip, so that photos and videos taken using the 5-megapixel iSight camera are better than ever.

We'll have to wait for the hardware to land to get independent benchmark results, but Apple's figures are usually pretty close to the mark, so this represents a serious performance upgrade for the iPad.

The iPad mini and the new iPad 4

Image source: Apple.

Topics: iPad, Apple, Hardware, Processors, Tablets

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12 comments
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  • I guess most people didn't expect this today

    Probably means that Apple is feeling the heat from its competitors. More devices and competition, good for the consumers.
    Smalahove
  • This is exciting news---especially for new iPad buyers!

    I'm amazed at how quickly Apple is improving their application CPUs in their IOS devices. No doubt, there will be few recent iPad 3 buyers posting about their "buyer's remorse". But take heart. I'm still using an iPad 1 that I bought the first day the iPad was available and it runs great! Even after 2.5 years, the battery is still in great shape. (I still average close to 10 hours per charge and I use my iPad daily...roughly 2 hours per day!)
    ckantack@...
    • So much for Apple's lack of innovation.

      The A6 chip is a huge thing. No other handset manufacturer is doing what Apple is. By designing their own custom ARM implementations they're able to completely optimize the SoC for iOS giving them a huge advantage. Compared to other devices, iOS devices are going to perform better with fewer cores and/or lower clock speeds resulting in decreased power consumption.

      It's really the last piece in Apple's vertical implementation of iOS. They're now controlling the process from the processor up. Everyone agrees that the hardware-software integration of iOS devices is it's biggest advantage, and the A6 is just taking that integration one, huge, step further. It's not hard to imagine Apple's iOS advantage getting even bigger.
      matthew_maurice
      • So much for Apple's lack of innovation.

        I believe Samsung is the other developer that also design their own processors the difference is the use of Android and not proprietary like iOS
        Roberto Varela
        • Samsung is still tweaking Cortex processors

          They license ARM-designed chips and modify them. This is what Apple, with Samsung's input, had done with the A-series up to the A5. The A6 is revolutionary because Apple designed the chip from scratch using the ARMv7 instruction set, so Apple has complete control over all aspects of the entire processor.
          matthew_maurice
          • you do know that

            Samsung's Cortex A15 based Exynos is already in Samsung's pipeline for more than half a year right?

            To say A6 is revolutionary is really an overstatement since the performance just coming from the smaller 32 nm process so that is fits more GPU cores, faster memory controllers and run at higher clock rate. At the end of the day, it's still just the tweaking of the same old v7 core.
            Samic
      • What about Qualcomm

        I think you forgot qualcomm
        cortex_inside
  • No more resting on their laurels

    Big Apple fan here but its good to see the competition placing pressure on Apple. They really need to get away from their once-a-year upgrades and release new products more frequently. Its not like they don't have the cash to invest in faster product cycles.
    gribittmep
    • I think the new, new iPad is a one-off.

      The established yearly update cycle for iOS devices is strength, not a weakness. Getting the A6 into the iPad was clearly a priority for Apple, and it's totally understandable (2x performance at the same batter life? No-brainer). Yes, Apple kind of shafted early new iPad buyers, but they gave everyone who hasn't bought yet a huge early Christmas present.

      If anything, we'll probably see the iPad go a year until it's substantially updated again. I wouldn't be surprised if we don't see Apple moving to a fall release cycle for everything. Apple's new approach could be WWDC in June for OS X and iOS announcements, new iPods released in the August, new iPhones in September, and new iPads in October with new/updated Macs released as technology and market-conditions dictate.
      matthew_maurice
  • same old lines

    Does anyone remember when the clock speed of a CPU dobled every few monthes? 33Mhz -66Mhz - 1 gHz topping out at 1.6 GHZ (a fundamental physics limit). It all seemed like it was planned out and the hardware change was simple - like the device had been hobbled. Seems like they are pulling the same stunt with these ARM systems. Don't forget the market "engineers" who just make stuff up. How can something that is 95% accurate get 30% more accurate each year over and over.? Or 50% faster or better each year. I am cynical about anything a salesman in tech says.
    rehabeng
    • It's called Moore's Law

      Yes, there's some artificial scarcity when it comes to the highest clock-speed CPUs within any given generation of processors...but the rapid performance changes were very well understood at the time and were the result of engineering and innovation and not some ominous conspiracy. Sure, there were some annoying things going on that still go on today, like new operating systems that seem to demand new hardware every time. There's a little sleaze there but most of it's human nature: if new faster hardware is on the horizon, developers will be using it and will tend to write bloated and lazy code because the new hardware helps sand down the edges of what would otherwise be terrible performance. Never attribute to malice and all that...there are plenty of more viable conspiracies to worry about over in the FIRE industries and foreign policy.
      aydeejones
  • And there's no "fundamental physics unit of 1.6 GHz"

    Just so we're clear, a computer I bought in 2003 has a 2.8 GHz core but would by no means be a decent machine running today's software...and my screaming fast MacBook i7 is running at 2.3 GHz but would annihilate the P4 2.8 GHz a million times over because yeah, it's not just a matter of clock speed. But stop making up nonsense.
    aydeejones