ARM wrestling: Apple iPad chip to overpower rivals?
In-house chippery to make or break tablet, say analysts
The big question is perhaps not whether Apple will announce the eagerly anticipated iPad next week, but what chip will power the media tablet.
Since the device is expected to run a version of the iPhone operating system, and given that battery life is likely to be a key factor in the iPad's success, it's hard to imagine Apple using anything other than an ARM-based processor in there.
It's tempting, after the claims made by Nvidia when it launched its newest Tegra ARM-based system-on-a-chip at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month - dual-core processor, full HD graphics, 15-hour movie-playback battery life - that Apple might have selected this part for the iPad.
But a number of analysts this week said they believe the iPad may well be based on chippery designed by the Mac maker itself. Some of these claims may be circular - they're derived from what other analysts are saying - and we wouldn't want to categorically rule out an Nvidia involvement, but the alleged use of an in-house chip design is appealing.
Speaking to CNet  this week, technology consultant Richard Doherty of Envisioneering talked up Apple's efforts: "Before the year is out, Apple will have the most powerful, lowest-cost SoC in the industry. There's nothing that I can see from ARM licensees or Intel that could challenge the power-per-Watt, the power-per-buck, the power-per-cubic-millimeter of size. Apple is going to have quite a performance, battery efficiency and cost advantage over the competition."
How might Apple achieve this? Back in 2008, Apple acquired chip designer PA Semi, and that CEO Steve Jobs subsequently said that Apple's new semiconductor engineers would be working on SoCs for the iPhone and iPod - tacit confirmation that the team would be working with ARM cores.
Later that year, Apple bought a small $4.8m, 3.6 per cent stake in Imagination Technologies, a UK-based developer of graphics cores for ARM chips of the kind it is said to be working on. If you're serious about putting good graphics into an ARM-based SoC, Imagination is one of the first companies you call for a chat - if, indeed, it's not at the top of your list.
Hiring Chip Chiefs
Then, in 2009, Apple hired one-time AMD Graphics Products Group CTO Bob Drebin, and was said to have found work for Raja Koduri, who was also CTO at AMD's Graphics Products Group, having joined the company through its acquisition of ATI - which is how AMD also took on Drebin.
Drebin acknowledged his Apple role on the social networking site LinkedIn, though Koduri has not. Maybe he never joined, and his claimed participation was simply a mix-up arising from both holding the CTO position.
Either way, Apple has people on board with solid graphics chip development expertise.
It's important not to read too much into that, though. In 1999, Apple acquired Raycer Graphics, a developer of graphics technology for SoCs, but the acquisition doesn't appear to have led to any specific new Apple product, at least not one Apple has ever acknowledged. Indeed, both of Raycer's founders - David Epstein and Jay Duluk - went off to do other things after handing over the keys to Apple. Duluk eventually wound up at Nvidia.
Apple may have hired the likes of Drebin on the basis they can keep it up to date on the best the chip industry has to offer and get it the best commercial deals, not to develop such a product on its behalf.
However, there are rather a lot of former PA Semi chip engineers, designers and managers who, unlike Epstein and Duluk, didn't leave during the acquisition and are still working at Apple doing the jobs they were doing at PA. The acquisition wasn't simply an intellectual property grab - all these people are still working on low-power, high-performance chips, though presumably not ones based on the Power architecture.
Will their efforts make it into the iPad? Northeast Securities' Ashok Kumar, also quoted by CNet, reckons Apple will use Samsung chippery - as it does with the iPhone - before transitioning to a PA Semi-designed alternative.
Even then, Samsung may manufacture the part. UBS Investment Research this week said that will happen sooner rather than later: the first Apple tablet will contain a PA Semi SoC fabbed by the South Korean giant.
Nvidia's Tegra demo at CES was impressive. If the chip does a little less than what has been promised, it means we're going to see some powerful yet long-running tablet designs this year. If Doherty's forecast about Apple's SoC superiority is anything more than hyperbole, Apple's offering will blow them all away. ®