When Apple announced the new iPad Air last month, the most interesting thing about it wasn’t its iPad Pro-inspired design or the bevy of new color options. No, it’s what the new Air had lurking inside that slim frame.
To our surprise, the 2020 iPad Air was the first device announced by Apple to use the new A14 Bionic chipset. That silicon’s impact won’t be limited to tablets, either — it will almost certainly power the next generation of iPhones, which Apple will unveil on October 13th. In a conversation with Engadget, Tim Millet, Apple’s VP of platform architecture, and Tom Boger, senior director of Mac and iPad product marketing, shed some light on the company’s approach to designing the A14, and what it means for the iPad Air and beyond.
Building a beast
At a high level, the A14 seems similar to Apple’s other Bionic chipsets. This system-on-a-chip packs a six-core CPU — two cores high-performance cores and four for lower-priority tasks — just as the A12 and A13 did. The number of GPU cores here has also remained unchanged at four. Don’t be fooled by these passing similarities, though: Because the A14 was designed for a 5nm manufacturing process, there’s more going on in this system-on-a-chip than ever before. But let’s take a step back first. The shift to ever-denser chipset designs has been happening for years, and shows no sign of slowing.
The A14 might be the world’s first commercially available 5nm chip, but Apple’s rivals aren’t far behind. Qualcomm first 5nm mobile chipset, the Snapdragon 875, could debut as soon as December at the company’s virtual Snapdragon Summit. And then there’s Samsung, which — in addition to manufacturing those Snapdragons for Qualcomm — has begun pulling back the curtain on its 5nm Exynos 1080 chipset.
The main benefit of chips based on these new manufacturing processes is that they’re more densely packed with transistors, incredibly small switches that can control the flow of electrons. These serve as the foundation for logic gates, which beget integrated circuits, which beget full-blown processors.
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.
“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.”
The switch to a 5nm design for the A14 also gave Apple the latitude to devote more of its transistor “budget” to components beyond just the CPU and GPU. And when it comes to achieving the best all-around experience, companies like Apple, Samsung and Huawei — the only other companies to design chips for their own mobile devices — have a distinct advantage. In this case, because Apple exercises full control over what goes into its systems-on-chips, it can invest in additional processing cores and components before they go mainstream.
The best example is the company’s Neural Engine, a component that debuted in the iPhone X’s A11 chipset to accelerate the sorts of neural networks needed for features like secure face unlocking, voice recognition for Siri and augmented reality, among other things. Apple was among the first to integrate a dedicated neural accelerator into its chips — Huawei announced the Kirin 970 and its neural processing unit a week before Apple revealed its own Neural Engine, and Samsung and Qualcomm only caught up later.
Unsurprisingly, this year’s Neural Engine is a far cry from the first one we saw in 2017. While that original co-processor could perform 600 billion operations per second, last year’s A13 raised the bar to 6 trillion operations in the same amount of time. Meanwhile, the A14 generally obliterates the bar by performing a claimed 11 trillion operations per second.
That boost was made possible by a big redesign: The A14’s Neural Engine now packs 16 cores, compared to eight in last year’s A13. Doubling the engine’s core count was an interesting choice since many of the iOS features that relied on it already seemed to run well enough. Since that’s the case, why not instead devote more of those new transistors to further ramping up CPU and GPU performance, which most people may more immediately notice?
The answer is two-fold. For one, Apple continues to see huge potential in supercharging neural networks, not just for the sake of its own software experiences, but for the ones app developers might be able to achieve with the right components in place. The popular image editing app Pixelmator Pro, for instance, leans on the Neural Engine for a feature that makes low-resolution images look surprisingly crisp and clean. Meanwhile, on the other end of the creative spectrum, Algoriddim’s djay Pro AI app uses the Neural Engine to more capably isolate vocals and instrument tracks in songs.
“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.”
And that’s a nice segue to the other half of the answer, which is that Apple had to balance sheer horsepower with efficiency. After all, there’s no point in making sure the horses run fast if they tire out too soon.
“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.”
Image credit: Apple
There’s little debate that the A14 is more impressive than its predecessors, but all of this raises an interesting question: How powerful is this thing, really?
It depends. Apple hasn’t yet issued claims about the A14 Bionic’s performance improvements over last year’s A13 Bionic — expect more on that during the company’s upcoming keynote. (A set of leaked benchmarks suggests some healthy gains over last year’s chipset, though some are less than impressed.) When Apple revealed the new iPad Air, though, it did say the A14’s CPU was up to 40 percent faster than the previous model, and that people could expect up to a 30 percent increase in graphics performance.
It’s important to note, however, that real-life performance gains don’t always live up to Apple’s promises. When the company says the A14’s CPU is 30 percent more powerful than the current iPad Air’s A12 chipset, for instance, it isn’t going off results from popular benchmarking tools you and I have access to. According to Boger, those figures are an amalgamation 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-thread performance for a lot of applications is really important,” Millet added. “So we make sure that when we’re talking about things like that, we’re representing the single-thread performance well. We also represent that more forward-looking developers are actually taking advantage of the extra cores that are coming in.”
Since I’ve spent a considerable chunk of 2020 testing Apple’s devices, my thoughts quickly pivoted to how the A14 may blur the boundary between the Air and the iPad Pros. After all, the 2020 iPad Pro relies on a souped-up variant of a two-year-old chipset. How does that stack up compared to Apple’s new silicon?
On the whole, the iPad Pro still has the edge. It was a blistering-fast machine when we tested it earlier this year, and Millet and Boger were quick to point out that the current model’s A12Z chipset has more CPU and GPU cores — eight of each — than the A14 does. That big difference in GPU computing power in particular means the iPad Pro will continue to be better suited for graphical work and the other “high-performance workloads” Apple’s pro users might deal with. But that’s not to say the iPad Air’s chipset is completely outgunned here.
“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.
That Apple built a $600 tablet with the power to sometimes outperform its pro-level hardware is a big deal. What might be more important, however, is the effect Apple’s work in designing the A14 could have on the rest of its devices down the road.
Image credit: Chris Velazco/Engadget
To the future
As I said earlier, the A14 will power the new iPad Air and likely the company’s latest slew of iPhones, but it’ll almost certainly wind up in other products too. Just look at Apple’s line of entry-level iPads: While they’ve never gotten the high-end chipset variants made for the iPad Pros, they’re frequently refreshed 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 to splurge on a new phone or tablet just yet — there’s a decent chance you’ll eventually experience the A14.
And even if you don’t, you may still benefit from some of the work that went into it. When people at Apple start working on a chipset, they’re not solely focused on building one for a single product; they take into account the company’s entire lineup. “We spend a lot of time working with the product teams and software teams, and the architecture group really does sit in the center of that,” said Millet. In building a product, Apple has to wrangle a laundry list of important components, from the CPU and GPU to cameras and display modules and a bevy of sensors. Connecting all of them in ways that work well falls to Millet’s team, and one of their biggest priorities is making sure the chip-level architecture that weaves them all together is parameterized — that is, scalable for use in different kinds of devices.
“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.
For weeks now, rumors of an iPad Pro powered by a high-performance version of the A14 called the A14X have continued to surface, with some suggesting a launch in early 2021. That alone isn’t unusual; Apple announced its third-generation iPad Pro and its A12X chipset just one month after releasing the A12-powered iPhone XS series. What’s more interesting — and this is the part you should take with a grain of salt — is that the A14X is also rumored to be the chipset inside the company’s first commercially available Apple Silicon Macs. Naturally, the company wouldn’t confirm any of this to me, but when asked about whether the company’s work on Mac chips influenced the A14’s development at all, Millet noted that “sometimes it’s the constraints of a unique platform that drive invention.”
Ultimately, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the A14 and Apple’s plans for it in the near future. How else will its architecture be expanded or constricted to work for differing hardware? Will what Apple learned from designing mobile chipsets like the A14 give it the tools it needs to take on Intel and AMD? Millet stopped short of discussing these topics in full, but one thing seems clear all the same: Whether or not you buy an iPad Air (or an iPhone 12, for that matter), the impact of Apple’s work on this chipset will be felt for years to come.
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The iPhone 12 and 12 Pro are set to be delivered to customers this Friday, but there are already a few out in the wild. Leaker DuanRui this morning shared a video featuring a short teardown of the new iPhone 12, giving us a quick look at the internals.
In the video, the iPhone 12 is taken apart component by component, with comparisons to corresponding iPhone 11 parts provided. The new iPhone 12 has an L-shaped logic board, which we initially saw in a leak in May. The iPhone 12 logic board isn’t identical to the leaked logic board, so that leaked version is likely from another one of the iPhone 12 models.
The logic board is longer than the logic board that was used in the iPhone 11, and it has the aforementioned L design rather than just a straight design.
There’s a 2,815mAh battery in the iPhone 12, which was seen in Brazilian regulatory filings last week. Comparatively, the iPhone 11 has a higher capacity 3,110mAh battery. Apple lists similar battery lengths for both iPhone models, though, due to efficiency improvements introduced through the A14.
Smaller batteries may have been included because Apple may have needed extra space for the 5G components in this year’s iPhones, but there have already been some concerning early tests about faster than normal battery drain when using 5G networks. That’s not necessarily a surprise because it’s well known that 5G drains battery faster, but it’s something iPhone 12 and 12 Pro users should be aware of.
The Taptic Engine, which provides haptic feedback, is a good deal smaller in the iPhone 12, and the teardown also shows off that magnetic ring that works with MagSafe accessories.
There are also comparisons between other components such as the display, dual-lens camera setup, flash, and more, which those interested can see in the video.
iFixit will have in-depth teardowns of both the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro coming in the future, which we can count on seeing after the new devices are released.
Ahead of its official release on Friday, the first teardown video of the iPhone 12 has surfaced. While this teardown video is not as in-depth as what we expect to see once the iPhone 12 is more widely available, it offers our first look inside Apple’s all-new design.
The primary focus of this teardown is on comparing the iPhone 12 with last year’s iPhone 11. For example, we can see in the video that the iPhone 12’s OLED display is significantly thinner than the iPhone 11 display. We can also see that Apple has apparently reduced the size of the Taptic Engine in the iPhone 12 compared to the iPhone 11.
The comparison to the iPhone 11 is interesting because Apple touts that the iPhone 12 is 11% thinner, 15% smaller, and 16% lighter. Getting a peek inside the iPhone 12 offers a clearer look at how Apple was able to make the size reductions while retaining the same 6.1-inch screen.
Check out the video below. Again, once the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are widely available on Friday, we expect more in-depth teardowns to be published.
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1. iPhone 12 and Pro models reviewed, no Mini or Max yet
About a week after Apple’s iPhone 12 announcement, devices have now started shipping, which also signals reviews dropping out. What’s missing here is the iPhone 12 mini and the iPhone 12 Pro Max, both models not available until November. Both are potentially more interesting, but likely the base iPhone 12 will be the top seller out of the four, regardless. I don’t know if we’re missing half the story here or not, but for now it’s the base iPhone 12 vs the iPhone 12 Pro.
And the base iPhone 12 and the Pro series have been reviewed and compared pretty widely, and while the longer-term reviews tend to get further below the surface, there’s some early good and maybe one or two concerns.
Part of the balance of the reviews is figuring out if you should get the iPhone 12 ($829 with 64GB storage, or $879 with 128GB of storage) or the12 Pro (starting at $999 with 128GB of storage), all priced without fairly generous trade-ins and various plans.
And actually, the reviews are saying that the gap between the default and the Pro is smaller than ever.
While the Pro Max has a better camera than the Pro. So buying the Pro for the camera but not the Pro Max is a bit of a puzzle to figure out.
Some outlets went for dual reviews together, possibly because of how similar they are.
The CNETiPhone 12 review spends much of the time actively comparing both. It’s one of the highest-rated phones of all time for the outlet, the iPhone 12 scoring 9.2/10 and the iPhone 12 Pro scoring 9.3/10, with the note, “it’s best to think of the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro as “better” and “best” versions of the same phone.
Engadget follows the same path, but flips the score. The iPhone 12 gets a 91/100 with praise for the huge leap taken from the iPhone 11 and calling it the right choice for most people. With the higher price tag, the iPhone 12 Pro scores an 89/100, with the explanation: “compared to the iPhone 12, the new iPhone 12 Pro is a considerably tougher sell.”
Daring Fireball spent less time on scores and more ruminating about what it all means, but did offer this: “Camera system aside, the iPhone 12 is just as nice as the iPhone 12 Pro, and it costs $120 less for the same amount of storage.”
More specific reviews said similar things, but got into more depth about key features. By the way, all reviews love the new design unequivocally: flat sides, and flat screen are great. The rails are matte on the iPhone 12, glossy on the Pro models, and the matte is a little nicer it seems. But, people will put a case on their phones anyway. TechCrunch went further: “The 12 Pro is likely the most premium feeling piece of consumer electronics I’ve ever touched.”
And all reviews say the A14 Bionic chip is blisteringly fast, so there’s not much need to get into details there.
The other stuff that matters is well covered by The Verge:
5G: “it’s not a good idea to buy an iPhone just because it has 5G. It’s a nice bonus, but not more than that yet.”
Camera: “The important changes to the camera in the iPhone 12 aren’t in the sensors or the lenses. They are completely unchanged except for the main […] camera going from an ƒ/1.8 aperture to ƒ/1.6 to allow in slightly more light. Instead, the bigger differences come from software and from unlocking new capabilities, thanks to the new A14 Bionic processor that runs everything on the phone … I definitely see a marked improvement over the iPhone 11, but they’re not enough to compel an upgrade”
Battery: “Luckily, I don’t think the battery life on the iPhone 12 is bad at all. I can get through a full day without much issue. On the other hand, I have to admit that it’s easier to kill this thing with a full day of heavy use than the iPhone 11.”
MagSafe: “…a very clever idea that needs some more bake time in the wild before it can actually replace the Lightning connector and deliver the port-less iPhone Apple seems to be headed toward in the future.”
Camera: “Last year I said the iPhone 11 Pro had the best camera on a smartphone, and it’s not like the iPhone 12 Pro went backward. But it’s only a small step forward — enough to stay just ahead of the competition. Most of the improvements are fairly minor …. The problem is that the iPhone 12 Pro Max camera is coming out in less than a month. If you are the sort of person who buys a new phone for the camera, I would definitely wait.
Dolby Vision HDR video: “the other big new camera feature across the iPhone 12 line is the ability to create Dolby Vision HDR video. There is no way to talk about this without falling deeply into the weeds of video formats…” (Read the review for those weeds which explain the large difference between photography HDR and video HDR!)
Battery: “I think iPhone 12 Pro battery life is going to vary widely for people depending on how much they use 5G — especially mmWave 5G — so this is something we’ll have to track over time. But I would definitely not expect the “try and stop me” battery life we saw on the regular iPhone 11.”
More on the battery: It’s clear that if any iPhone 12 is connected to a 5G network, battery life does suffer, but it’s not just 5G that’s the stress.
Over at Tom’s Guide, a testing regime found the regular iPhone 12 lasted 8 hours and 25 minutes over AT&T’s 5G network.
Last year’s iPhone 11 lasted a whopping 11 hours and 16 minutes over 4G.
Switching the iPhone 12 to 4G-only, it endured for 10 hours and 23 minutes.
Apple deflects concerns by saying it’s still an all-day battery.
We’ll find out battery mAh numbers once teardowns do their work.
Also: Few comparisons to Android phones yet in terms of cameras, battery life and so on. Expect more on that to come.
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