Apple on designing the A14 Bionic for the iPad Air and beyond

When Apple introduced the new iPad Air last month, the most interesting thing wasn't the iPad Pro-inspired design or the multitude of new color options. No, that's what the new air lurked in this sleek frame.
To our surprise, the iPad Air 2020 was the first device announced by Apple to use the new A14 Bionic chipset. The effects of this silicon won't be limited to tablets either - it will almost certainly power the next generation of iPhones that Apple will unveil on October 13th. In an interview with Engadget, Tim Millet, Vice President of Platform Architecture at Apple, and Tom Boger, Senior Director for Mac and iPad Product Marketing, shed light on the company's approach to developing the A14 and what it means for the iPad Air and beyond .
Build a beast
At a high level, the A14 seems to be similar to the other Bionic chipsets from Apple. This System-on-a-Chip contains a six-core CPU - two cores, high performance cores, and four for lower priority tasks - just like the A12 and A13. The number of GPU cores has also remained unchanged at four. Don't let these passing similarities fool you, however: since the A14 was designed for a 5nm manufacturing process, there is more going on in this system on a chip than ever before. But let's take a step back first. The move to increasingly dense chipset designs has been going on for years and is showing no signs of slowing down.
The A14 may be the world's first commercially available 5nm chip, but Apple's competitors aren't far behind. Qualcomm's first 5nm mobile chipset, the Snapdragon 875, could be unveiled as early as December at the company's Snapdragon virtual summit. And then there's Samsung, which - in addition to making those Snapdragons for Qualcomm - has started pulling the curtain back on its 5nm Exynos 1080 chipset.
The main advantage of chips based on these new manufacturing methods is that they are more densely filled with transistors, incredibly tiny switches that can control the flow of electrons. These serve as the basis for logic gates that generate integrated circuits and fully-fledged processors.
In any case, switching to 5 nm meant Apple had far more transistors for all systems on the chip. Think: 11.8 billion compared to the 8.5 billion the company had to work with last year on the A13 Bionic. As you'd expect, this huge increase in transistor counts gave Apple the extra processing bits necessary to build significantly faster and more efficient CPU and GPU cores. But it also gave Apple the leeway to subtly enhance the overall experience of a device.
“One of the ways that chip architects think about functions is to not necessarily map [transistors] directly to a user feature in the product, but to allow the underlying technology, such as the software in the graphics stack, to assign a new function in the GPU Use, "Millet said." That will inevitably appear as a visual feature in a game or in a quick transition in the user interface. "
Moving to a 5nm design for the A14 also gave Apple the ability to use more of its transistor “budget” on components beyond the CPU and GPU. Companies like Apple, Samsung and Huawei - the only other companies that develop chips for their own mobile devices - have a distinct advantage when it comes to getting the best all-round experience. In this case, since Apple has full control over the system-on-chips, it can invest in additional processor cores and components before they go mainstream.
The best example is the company's Neural Engine, a component first used in the iPhone X's A11 chipset to accelerate the type of neural networks required for features like secure face unlock, Siri speech recognition, and augmented reality, among others are. Apple was one of the first to add a dedicated neural accelerator to its chips - Huawei announced the Kirin 970 and its neural processing unit a week before Apple released its own Neural Engine, and Samsung and Qualcomm only caught up later.
A14 Neural Motor
Unsurprisingly, this year's Neural Engine is a far cry from the first we saw in 2017. While this original co-processor could perform 600 billion operations per second, the A13 raised the bar to 6 trillion operations in the same amount of time last year. Meanwhile, the A14 generally clears the bar by performing 11 trillion operations per second.
This boost was made possible by a comprehensive redesign: The neural engine of the A14 now has 16 cores, compared to eight in the A13 last year. Doubling the number of cores on the engine was an interesting choice, as many of the iOS features based on it appeared to be running well enough already. With that being the case, why not use more of these new transistors instead for further boosting CPU and GPU performance, which most people might notice right away?
The answer is twofold. For one, Apple continues to see great potential in neural network charging, not just because of its own software experience, but also because of what app developers may be able to achieve with the right components. The popular Pixelmator Pro image editing app, for example, relies on the Neural Engine for a feature that makes low-resolution images look surprisingly sharp and clean. On the other end of the creative spectrum, Algoriddim's djay Pro AI app uses the Neural Engine to better isolate vocals and instrument tracks in songs.
"We saw the possibility of doing things that would have been impossible with a traditional CPU instruction set," said Millet. "In theory, you could do a lot of the things the Neural Engine does on a GPU, but you can't do it in a tight, thermally constrained box."
And that's a nice transition to the other half of the answer: Apple had to balance pure performance with efficiency. After all, there is no point in making the horses run fast if they tire too soon.
"We try to focus on energy efficiency as that applies to every product we build," said Millet. Apple doesn't have to worry about a situation where it focuses on the phone's energy efficiency, which doesn't work in an iPad Air. Of course it will work. "
Apple iPad Air (2020)
Practical effect
There is little debate that the A14 is more impressive than its predecessor, but all of this begs an interesting question: how powerful is this thing really?
It depends on whether. Apple hasn't made any statements about the A14 Bionic's performance improvements over the A13 Bionic last year - expect more about that in the company's upcoming keynote. (A number of leaked benchmarks suggest some healthy gains from last year's chipset, though some are less than impressed.) When Apple first unveiled the new iPad Air, however, it said the A14's CPU was up to 40 percent faster than the previous model . and that people could expect graphics performance to increase by up to 30 percent.
It's important to note, however, that real performance improvements don't always live up to Apple's promises. For example, if the company states that the A14's CPU is 30 percent more powerful than the iPad Air's current A12 chipset, it won't affect the results of the popular benchmarking tools you and I have access to. According to Boger, these numbers are an aggregation of "real world application workloads". In other words, they're composite numbers derived from many different performance factors - all to demonstrate what it's like to actually use this thing.
"We understand that single-threaded performance is really important for a lot of applications," added Millet. "So we're making sure that when we talk about such things, we're portraying the performance of a single thread well. We're also portraying that more forward-thinking developers are actually taking advantage of the extra cores that come in."
iPad Pro
Having spent a sizable chunk of 2020 testing Apple's devices, my mind quickly turned to how the A14 could blur the line between the air and the iPad pros. After all, the iPad Pro 2020 relies on a souped-up variant of a two-year-old chipset. How does that compare to Apple's new silicon?
Overall, the iPad Pro is still ahead. When we tested it earlier this year, it was a bubble-fast machine, and Millet and Boger were quick to point out that the current model's A12Z chipset has more CPU and GPU cores - eight each - than the A14. This big difference in GPU processing power, in particular, means the iPad Pro continues to be better suited for graphing and the other "high-performance workloads" that Apple Pro users may be dealing with. But that doesn't mean that the iPad Air's chipset is completely superior here.
"Since the A14 has the latest generation of CPU cores, there may be some problems here and there that the A14 could possibly outperform the A12Z," noted Boger.
It's a big deal that Apple built a $ 600 tablet that sometimes outperforms its pro-level hardware. What could be more important, however, is the impact Apple's work in developing the A14 could have on the rest of the devices in the future.
Apple iPad Pro
In the future
As I said earlier, the A14 will power the new iPad Air and likely the company's newest iPhones, but it will almost certainly make an appearance in other products as well. Just look at Apple's entry-level iPads: while they have never received the high-end chipset variants for the iPad pros, they are often updated with silicon used in previous generation iPhones. If you're a fan of Apple's devices, it doesn't matter if you aren't planning on getting a new phone or tablet just now - there's a good chance you'll experience the A14 at some point.
And even if you don't, you can still benefit from some of the work in it. When Apple employees work on a chipset, they don't just focus on creating one for a single product. They take into account the entire structure of the company. “We spend a lot of time working with the product teams and software teams, and the architecture group is really at the center,” said Millet. When building a product, Apple has to create a laundry list of key components, from the CPU and GPU to cameras and display modules to a variety of sensors. The Millet team is responsible for connecting all the functions in a way that works well. One of their top priorities is to ensure that the chip-level architecture that ties them all together is parameterized - that is, scalable for use in different types of devices.
"Ultimately, we want to make sure that if you build a CPU for a generation, you don't necessarily make it for just one generation," he said. While that doesn't mean you see the A14's six-core CPU in some sort of Apple Watch, the architecture designed for the company's flagship phone chipset may be customizable and reused elsewhere. And as it turns out, we may not have to wait long to see a great example.
Apple silicon
Rumors have been surfing for weeks about an iPad Pro powered by a high-performance version of the A14 called the A14X. Some point to a start in early 2021. That alone is not unusual. Apple announced its third-generation iPad Pro and A12X chipset just a month after the A12-based iPhone XS series was released. More interestingly - and that's the part you should be ingesting with a grain of salt - is that the A14X is also said to be the chipset in the company's first commercially available Apple Silicon Macs. Of course, the company wouldn't confirm any of this to me, but when asked if the company's work on Mac chips had any impact on the development of the A14, Millet noted that "sometimes the limitations of a unique platform drive invention."
Ultimately, we don't know much about the A14 and Apple's plans for it in the near future. How else is the architecture expanded or constrained to work for different hardware? Will what Apple learned from developing mobile chipsets like the A14 provide the tools it needs for Intel and AMD? Millet stopped discussing these topics fully, but one thing seems clear nonetheless: whether or not you buy an iPad Air (or an iPhone 12), the impact of Apple's work on this chipset will be felt for years to come come.

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