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Apple's custom A4 and A5 system-on-chip (SoC) solutions help Apple not only to maximize its profit margins and tailor feature-set of its consumer electronics, but also to greatly reduce its dependence of Intel Corp.'s x86 microprocessors. According to IHS iSuppli, a high-tech market research firm, Apple shipped around 50 million A4 SoCs in 2010, which accounted for 80% of microprocessors it installed into its products.

Apple's shipments of products based on its A4 microprocessor reached nearly 50 million units in 2010 from virtually zero sales in 2009, IHS iSuppli research indicated. Apple in 2010 shipped nearly four times as many units of A4-based products as it did of x86-based. The situation is quite natural as Apple sells a lot more consumer gadgets, which may be powered by almost custom chips, than personal computers, which should be based on x86 microprocesors.

The low-cost, highly integrated A4 and A5 designs represent an important element in Apple’s philosophy of offering products focused on delivering a compelling user interface (UI) and a greatly optimized computing platform for Apple’s iOS operating system, iSuppli said. In the new design paradigm of smart phones and tablets, computing efficiency trumps raw computing power. Designs like the iPad or the iPhone demand highly integrated microprocessors that emphasize graphics performance, lower power consumption and small space usage.

Apple A4 is a custom system-on-chip featuring ARM Cortex-A8 general-purpose core, PowerVR SGX 535 graphics engine, memory controller, 640KB of L2 cache with clock-speed of up to 1GHz. The recently-introduced Apple A5 sports two ARM Cortex-A9 cores, PowerVR SGX543MP2 graphics processing unit, memory controller, 1MB of L2 cache and clock-speed of around 1GHz. Both are rumoured to be produced by Samsung Electronics using 45nm process technology.

Apple so far has introduced five products based on the A4: the first-generation iPad, the AT&T version of the iPhone 4, the Apple TV, the iPod Touch and the CDMA iPhone 4 carried by Verizon Wireless. Apple A5 can be found in the iPad 2 tablet.

Partly because of the popularity of Apple’s iPad, companies around the world are developing media tablets and other products that feature small and innovative form-factors, according to iSuppli. These products require highly integrated semiconductor solutions that consume less power and space, similar to the A4 microprocessor. In tablets and smart phones, companies are offering alternatives to the A4 that provide similar levels of integration. For instance, Intel Corp. and Nvidia Corp. have announced plans for tablet-oriented SoCs.

Tags: Apple, a4, A5, PowerVR, Cortex

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