Inside Apple's A6 processor

Inside Apple's A6 processor

Summary: By using fuming sulfuric acid, a futuristic-looking ion blaster, and a very good microscope, iFixit and Chipworks have been hard at work delving into Apple's new A6 processor, finding out what makes it tick.

SHARE:
TOPICS: iPhone, Apple, Hardware
40

Thanks to fuming sulfuric acid, an ion blaster, and a good microscope, we can finally see what makes the iPhone 5 tick.

Apple unveiled a lot of new shiny things during its iPhone 5 event last week, but the Cupertino giant doesn't talk much about what makes its hardware tick. One mystery inside the iPhone 5 was the new A6 processor. Now that an iPhone 5 has fallen into the hands of repair specialists iFixit -- working in association with Chipworks -- we can get a closer look at the new silicon powering Apple's flagship consumer electronics device.

Getting to the heart of the A6 isn't easy. The processor first needed to be decapsulated in a fuming sulfuric acid solution, then a microscope used to examine and photograph the die. Then, in order to dig deeper, an ion blaster, affectionately known as Ibe (short for "ion beam etching") is used to peel away the layers. This allowed some fantastic photos to be taken of the processor.

Read this:

iPhone 5 16GB costs an estimated $207 to build

A 16GB iPhone 5 that Apple sells for $649 only costs the company an estimated $207 to manufacture. Apple also charges an incredible $100 premium for only $10 worth of NAND storage.

Read more

Buried inside the A6 is some interesting technology. First, there are dual ARM core blocks and three PowerVR graphics cores. The teardown of the chip also revealed that the 1GB of RAM on the silicon was supplied by Elpida rather than Samsung, another indication of the growing rift between Apple and Samsung.

Despite the RAM being provided by Elpida, Samsung continues to manufacture the processors for Apple, using its 32-nanometer CMOS process.

The A6 is much larger than the A5 powering the iPhone 4S, swelling to 96.71 mm2. Compare this to the previous-generation A5 which powered the third-gen Apple TV, second-gen iPad 2 and fifth-gen iPod touch, which was only 69.9 mm2. iFixit claim that Apple has manually laid out the ARM core block -- manually as by hand as opposed to using a computer -- in order to maximize performance. But this manual layout comes at a price, being more expensive and more time consuming than allowing computer software to do it.

According to Miroslav Djuric, iFixit's chief information architect, the ARM cores inside the A6 "might be the only manual layout in a chip to hit the market in several years".

iFixit and Chipworks also took their ion blaster to other chips, including the Murata Wi-Fi SoC module, which actually turned out to comprise of a  Broadcom BCM4334 single-chip dual-band combo package, fabricated in Taiwan at TSMC on a 40 nm CMOS process. This brings Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 and HS, and an FM receiver (not used in the iPhone) into a single package.

Another chip to get the fuming sulfuric acid solution and ion blaster treatment was the Qualcomm MDM9615 LTE modem. This allows for multi-spectrums, multi-mode LTE support, which means you can talk on the phone and use data simultaneously.

According to Chipworks, while many of the packages inside Apple's newest smartphone look like old chips on the surface, the "iPhone 5 is not an evolution of design, but quite possibly an entirely new design". 

Image source: iFixit/Chipworks.

Topics: iPhone, Apple, Hardware

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

40 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Stunning revelation

    "was supplied by Elpida"

    "Samsung continues to manufacture the processors"

    "Murata Wi-Fi SoC module"

    "Qualcomm MDM9615 LTE modem"

    Sony battery, Corning glass, assembled by Foxconn, etc.

    Incredible how little of Apple is in any iDevice. They just order their parts off the shelves and pay Foxconn to slap 'em all together. The rest is marketing.

    Kudos Apple, I admire you for making so much profit from other people's products. Brilliant.
    toddbottom3
    • You're right

      Apple should start cutting back on staff! ...or at least let them take evenings, weekends and holidays.
      jaypeg
    • Apparently...

      You are ignoring the whole point..

      Here, I'll paste it for you so that you don't have to divert yourself from further trollong:


      • Even though the A6 was manufactured by Samsung, that doesn't mean it was designed by Samsung. The Apple A6 processor is Apple's first custom-designed processor. It's based on the ARMv7s instruction set.

      • Because Apple had complete control over the design of the processor, they were able to customize and tweak the performance to their liking.

      So… Apple actually modified the design of the processor to fit their needs. Something that does not happen that often (and if I'm correct, something that not every company has a license to do).

      Not sure why I'm feeding the troll as you'll no doubt come back with more mis-information. What Apple accomplished with the A6 is praised by just about everyone, Apple and Android fans alike, and even engineers. If you are too ignorant to acknowledge this then more then trolling, you're just pointing out how no one should ever take you seriously.
      tk_77
      • Spot on!!!

        This guy seems to be an endless jug of dribble.

        Don't waste your breath with logic on his type, ignorance and hate fuel his limited thinking.
        KBabcock75
      • In reality, Todd is right, and even you admitted that, Apple modified what

        was already there, which amounts to an engineering tweak of the processor.

        But, mostly, the A6 is composed of components from many other manufacturers, and very little from Apple, even if it's called an Apple design.

        In reality, most of what the manufacturers use to build the ready to use devices, comes from third parties, and so, no one can fault Apple any more than other manufacturers. Apple's products to "seem" to be built better, but, functionally, they're practically the same as others.
        adornoe
        • No.. Todd is far from right...

          You can look at anything from different perspectives and try to tweak it to suit your agenda... That is all Todd ever does... Sometimes he looks at a generic big picture, sometimes he gets retentive and nitpicky and splits hairs about stupid stuff.

          Apple is and has always been very open about this... They understand that there are things they do very very well and they let others do the stuff they don't do well but they make sure they and others never compromise quality. They used to do quite a bit of manufacturing on their own and they don't do it anymore. Hardly anyone does for that matter (Hence the reason Foxcon is so massively huge). Apple does design and innovation and they create new markets and they delight customers... One of the reasons I stopped building my own PCs is because Apple outdid everything home builders could do...

          They also have a way of constantly making trolls look like fools... Those trolls go around saying negative things about apple and giving out free advice to anyone that will actually listen to them. It's only a short time before Apple proves them wrong and ignorant over and over and over again...
          i8thecat4
          • Your argument doesn't invalidate anything I said, nor Toddy's...

            Nothing I stated can be disputed, and you didn't.

            Apple, for the most part, just did a tweak of the ARM processor, and that, somehow, makes it proprietary and unique? Perhaps, but, whatever it turned out to be, was produced by Samsung, at Samsung's plant. Then, the components in the rest of the iPhone and iPads, are also, mostly, produced by someone else, and put together by someone else. Apple is basically the contractor, and not the maker. If anyone deserves any kind of credit for what the ARM processors do, it's the ARM people themselves, who do issue licenses to others for production of machine-ready components. Tweaking is still minor, even if it ends up being a feature that is proprietary and a huge money maker.
            adornoe
          • That's like saying...

            ...The starship Enterprise is just "a tweak" of the old Apollo vehicle.
            billaaa8
        • Todd - and you - are wrong.

          Apple is one of just a few companies that have a license from ARM to design its own processors related to ARM designs. In fact, Apple was one of the first companies to work with ARM -- wayyyy back in the 1980s -- and heavily influenced numerous aspects of all ARM processors since then ... including the ones inside Android and Windows ARM devices.

          Apple designed the processor, but manufacturing is not its core competency, so it contracts that out to companies like Samsung. The fact that Samsung produces the processor - under contract - does not make it a Samsung processor.

          But I find it funny that the Android fans are always so quick to fault Apple for its proprietary components ... then just as quick to fault it when Apple uses commonly available components. Which way do you actually want it?
          imalugnut
          • Your argument doesn't invalidate anything I said, nor Toddy's...

            Nothing I stated can be disputed, and you didn't.

            Apple, for the most part, just did a tweak of the ARM processor, and that, somehow, makes it proprietary and unique? Perhaps, but, whatever it turned out to be, was produced by Samsung, at Samsung's plant. Then, the components in the rest of the iPhone and iPads, are also, mostly, produced by someone else, and put together by someone else. Apple is basically the contractor, and not the maker. If anyone deserves any kind of credit for what the ARM processors do, it's the ARM people themselves, who do issue licenses to others for production of machine-ready components. Tweaking is still minor, even if it ends up being a feature that is proprietary and a huge money maker.
            adornoe
      • Toddy the Troll is an Idiot

        You can be sure that he'll post on anything with "Apple" in the title, or anything that he can twist into being related to Apple on ZDNet and he's very good at pouncing on the first comment - like any paid troll should.

        His comments today were especially shallow, even for him. He used to press my buttons but now I kinda' look forward to his rants - just like that "special" kid down the street, Toddy is a bit touched in the head and apparently he's never looked at anyone else's electronics, or appliances, or cars, or anything! I DO like how he praises Jobs with the virility horns!

        I digress, the A6 rocks and is designed by Apple - I wonder how many chips MS or Google have designed???
        Gr8Music
    • Real Genius...

      Real genius does not only exist in creation of raw facts, raw data or base chips -- it can also be the way of combining things in useful, intuitive ways that are easily accessible by others.

      Is Google popular only because it has raw data from the internet that no one else does? No, it is great because it combines, organizes and presents that data in ways that make it useful and easy for the user. Apple is similar -- it isn't that no one else has the same chips or maybe even superior chips. It's a whole product that is greater than just the sum of its "slap 'em all together" parts.

      If slapping parts together was all that was needed, Adroid would be the *undisputed* king of the world of SmartPhones, Tablets, etc.
      SbySW
    • No manners!

      @toddbottom3 don't you have any basic manners? You can blast Apple as much as you want but has some respect for the deceased, change the icon to Tim Cook. Didn't your parents teach you any things?
      Teco222
      • I had no respect for Steve Jobs when he was alive

        Why should his death excuse all the evil he did? It doesn't. The "man" doesn't deserve any respect. He was scum then, he is worm food scum now.
        toddbottom3
        • Evil?

          Evil? What on earth makes the CEO of a hardware company evil? I think you really really need to re-evaluate what properties you consider evil in a man...
          RandomCake
      • manners

        His mama did not beat him enough when he was a child to teach him manners and respect for the dead. :-)

        Job's may have been many different things to many different people but none the less
        he did accomplish a lot and changed the landscape of personal computing and content consumption, not to mention content distribution.

        Ask Steve Ballmer where Microsoft got the idea for the win 95 desktop from. Oh and before that the win 2.0-3.0 3.1 ,NT etc G.U.I. When they were writing code for Apple?
        Apple had a trash first then windows got a recycle bin that looks like a trash can imagine that. just saying.

        Jobs at least paid Xerox PARK for the original concept. I'm not a fanboi don't even own any MAC stuff have a galaxy II phone and 3 PC's 2 win 7 one XP all 3 are HP's. I don't hate Apple stuff some it is pretty nice. Better to have a choice than not. BTW. No matter what you are using to connect here it was likely made in China , probably at Foxconn they made my 3 HP's and my PS3 probably my TV's also , GM is building Chevys and Buicks there.
        No reason to disrespect Jobs .

        All corporations have their evil or less stellar moments just the way it is.
        Microsoft , Apple , Oracle and HP ,GM,Ford Motor and anybody else you might care to name.
        Anyone who has been behind closed doors in a multi national corporation I can assure you
        knows this all to well.
        preferred user
      • Jobs wasn't a very endearing person when he was alive,

        and respect is earned, not given because he was a genius of sorts with creating products that people wanted.
        adornoe
    • Don't Get it, do you?

      Do you not understand the difference between designing and manufacturing the chips? Do you think because Samsung manufacturers the chip it's a Samsung processor? If so, you are sorely mistaken.
      jonbren
      • If Apple manufactures devices with components from other designers and

        manufacturers, is it still an Apple product?

        Basically, if Apple can claim to have been the manufacturer of its iDevices, then Samnsung can claim that its chips are Samsung chips. Logically, the same argument as yours.
        adornoe
    • got to steal from some ware

      some hard ware and some soft ware. A.K.H. sounds like you have never striped a chip. to bad so sad i thought you were on top of thins i guess not. a little old hat for me. but thats ok nice you are showing the kids.
      sarai1313