Apple details new A14 chip and designing processors that range iPhone to Mac

Apple first announced the A14 Bionic chip as it unveiled the iPad Air in September. Now just ahead of the company revealing its iPhone 12 lineup that will also feature the chip, Apple’s VP of platform architecture Tim Millet shared more insight on designing the chip and the impressive performance they’re seeing, how Apple is thinking about chip design for the future ranging from iPhone to Mac, and more.

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Apple’s Tim Millet and Tom Boger, senior director of Mac and iPad product marketing for an interview with Engadget diving into the A14 Bionic chip. With the A14 being Apple’s first chip built on the 5nm process, it gains an impressive amount of transistors, 3 billion more than the A13. Engadget mentions how Apple has leveraged that boost:

In any case, the shift to 5nm meant Apple had far more transistors to devote to all the systems on the chip. Think: 11.8 billion, up from the 8.5 billion the company had to work with in last year’s A13 Bionic. As you’d expect, that huge uptick in transistor count gave Apple the extra processing bits needed to build significantly faster, more efficient CPU and GPU cores. But it also gave Apple the latitude to make more subtle improvements to a device’s overall experience.

Here’s how Millet describes the thinking behind the chip design process:

“One of the ways chip architects think about features is not necessarily directly mapping [transistors] to a user feature in the product so much as enabling the underlying technology, like software in the graphics stack to be able to leverage a new capability in the GPU,” Millet said. “That will inevitably come as a visual feature in a game, or in a snappy transition in the user interface.”

Another incredible jump in raw performance according to Apple is the A14 Bionic’s Neural Engine being able to perform 11 trillion operations per second. That’s almost doubled from the 600 billion that the A13 can handle. That was enabled by the redesign of the A14 Neural Engine now including 16 cores, up from 8 with the A13.

“We saw the opportunity to do things that would have been impossible to do with a conventional CPU instruction set,” Millet said. “You could in theory do many of the things the Neural Engine does on a GPU, but you can’t do it inside of a tight, thermally constrained enclosure.”

Explaining further about the decisions that went into the A14, Millet also commented on its chips working well across different devices.

“We try to focus on energy efficiency, because that applies to every product that we build,” said Millet. By making that a fundamental focus of its chip designs, Apple doesn’t have to worry about a situation in which it “focused on energy efficiency for the phone [in a way] that’s not going to work in an iPad Air. Of course it’s going to work.”

On the topic of iPad, Millet and Boger both highlighted that the iPad Pro with the A12Z has more CPU and GPU cores (8 of each) than the A14 (6 and 4, respectively) so should still offer the best performance for things like graphic intense work. However, Boger did say that some tasks will be faster on the new iPad Air with A14:

“Because the A14 has our latest-generation CPU cores, you may see a few things here and there that the A14 could potentially outperform the A12Z in,” Boger noted.

While Apple said the new iPad Air’s A14 CPU is up to 40% faster than the previous model (A12 chip) and users would see 30% gain in graphics performance, we haven’t heard yet how the A14 will compare directly to the A13. Millet and Borger didn’t tell Engadget either, but we should find out at the iPhone 12 event on October 13.

With Apple Silicon expected to debut in the first Mac next month and Apple’s HomePod mini that should be unveiled at the iPhone 12 event believed to be running on the Apple Watch S5 chip, Millet shared about how Apple is thinking about chip design for all its products:

“Ultimately, we want to make sure that when we build a CPU for one generation, we’re not building it necessarily only for one,” he said. While that doesn’t mean you’ll see the A14’s six-core CPU in something like an Apple Watch, the architecture developed for the company’s flagship phone chipset may well be adapted and reused elsewhere. And as it turns out, we might not have to wait very long before to see a great example.

Engadget references an updated iPad Pro with an A14X as well as the first Apple Silicon Mac using the X variant of the A14 chip as the company’s computers start the transition away from Intel.

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