Apple Silicon – First Impressions

As expected Apple unveiled its own CPU yesterday. This has been rumored for years and widely expected all month, so here we want to take a look a quick look at what they unveiled and then tomorrow think a little on what it means for the semis, PC and phone industries.

Apple has been building their own silicon for almost a decade, and they talked a lot about the performance gains this has driven, and the fact that they have shipped over 2 billion chips (technically, SoCs, but let’s not get into that distinction here).

They started with a discussion of the trade-offs made in silicon between power efficiency (laptops) and raw performance (desktops). They set their target to the upper left quadrant (low power, high performance). While there are no numbers on this chart, our guess is that they did not draw those boxes purely out of thin air, and that there is some quantifiable measurement underlying the placement of these boxes.

Reading between the lines, they seem to be targeting desktop performance with highly improved power budgets. This is important because they could have done the inverse and built a very different product. This implies some incredibly powerful laptops, as opposed to ultra-long battery life on lighter devices. Which is interesting because that latter use case is an iPad, as most people use it today, which runs on a different branch of their chip family tree. Our interpretation of this is that they have built an incredibly flexible architecture that lets them assemble chip pieces like Lego bricks. This has big implications for the broader industry, which we will return to in tomorrow’s post.

Apple learned (demonstrated) with their mobile processors that they can build product differentiation through silicon. The A-Series chips in the iPhone and the iPad are known for offering incredible raw performance when compared to other mobile chips, but raw performance is hard for customers to appreciate. Far more important are the ways they tie their device software to the underlying hardware – better image processing and battery life, for instance. There are important advantages available from tying software and silicon together, even if they cannot be easily benchmarked.

For years, chip designers building Arm chips have used the flexibility of those systems in interesting ways. For instance, ten years ago Qualcomm started building processors with both high- and low-performance cores. This allowed improved battery life by only using the high-performance cores when needed (games, video), and use the low-power cores to handle mundane tasks (stand-by mode).

By examining the features that Apple has built into its new CPU we can learn something about where their priorities lay.

These kinds of charts are always our favorite parts of Apple keynotes. They cram a whole bunch of features into a slide, and often, some of the best stuff is hidden in there. The screenshot above shows 21 features. Of these over one third deal with improved power efficiency, and there as many targeting improved audio/visual processing as there dealing with raw performance. Put simply, there is a lot of chip real estate dedicated to improving power consumption. As in our example above, there are both high-performance CPU cores and high-efficiency cores (i.e. lower power).

We think the audio/visual emphasis is important as well. We already know that camera and video processing are of top importance on phones, but Apple clearly believes that applies to laptops as well. We also found it important that there are two blocks of cores dedicated to AI/machine learning. We think this is a taste of what is to come. We expect to see more on this in the future as things like natural language processing move to the laptop.

So if we go back to the first slide on power vs performance. Apple has done a lot of work to hold power usage constant while boasting about performance improvements. Before the event, we expected Apple to talk a lot about the power savings their chip would deliver. And looking at the features, those are the features that really stand out. We were hoping for 24 hour laptop battery life. But in their presentation and positioning materials they instead focused on performance. Some of this may be traditional computer marketing, the fear many users would have is that they will suffer performance losses on new silicon. However, it is also clear that Apple did a lot of work on power to get to those performance figures. The hardest challenge in compute today is power usage, even for devices that are regularly plugged in to power.

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