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Although Apple is developing chips for its ultra-portable products like iPad or iPhone, it will barely be able to develop central processing units that are powerful enough against x86 micro-architecture. As a result, Apple’s chips will not power Macintosh computers, but Intel Corp.’s products will remain inside Macs.

Throughout several decades many companies used to develop microprocessors for personal computers and/or servers. Such companies employed from hundreds to thousands of engineers, but at this point there are just two companies designing competitive chips for PCs, five companies developing processors for servers and a number of designers trying to make competitive chips for mobile, embedded and other industries.

Apple has never attempted to develop its own central processing units and used off-the-shelf chips for many reasons, the main of which is state-of-the-art technologies required for competitive microprocessors along with experience, patent portfolio and so on. But Apple started to develop its own system-on-chips for ultra-portable products like iPhone or iPad.

With its low-power A4 and A5 system-on-chip devices, Apple saves great amount of money as it does not have to pay premium for SoCs from Nvidia, Qualcomm, etc. Moreover, designing system-on-chips does not necessarily mean creating from scratch and then hand-tuning all the units inside, but involves licensing and tweaking them as well as adding certain unique logic. The company has a lot of low-power processing experts and continues to hire chip design specialists, thus the A-series SoCs will only get more competitive.

“Apple is bringing in-house some of the design aspect in the form of SoCs, to get exactly what they want and not a carbon copy of some other (e.g., Samsung) design. They will never ever sell that part, it will be exclusively Apple, and we're going to have a devil of a time trying to figure out what's in it and what its specifications are -  all part of Apples master plan to keep its secrets secret,” said Jon Peddie, the head of Jon Peddie Research.

But it is not only much easier to develop a mobile SoC than to design a fully-fledged microprocessor that will be able to power a desktop or a notebook, it also makes a lot more economic sense for Apple. The company presently sells around a hundred of millions of iOS-based devices that are also powered by A4/A5 SoCs per year, but the volumes of its Macintosh offerings are much lower (around 20 million per year). Hence, per-chip development costs may be too high even in case Apple actually creates CPUs competitive to Intel’s or AMD’s.

“Apple's unit volumes for notebooks is way smaller than for iOS devices, and the R&D needed to field a competitive notebook CPU would be way higher, so the economics don't work,” said Nathan Brookwood, the principal of Insight 64.

There are a lot more reasons for Apple not to develop chips for its Macintosh desktops and notebooks.

Many microprocessor technologies are patented by AMD, Intel, IBM, Sun/Oracle and some others. Hence, Apple risks running into patent wars against established chip designers. It will take years for Apple to avoid such conflicts or develop its own patent portfolio and ink cross-licensing agreements.

“There's a huge IP hurdle for anyone trying to build an x86-compatible CPU. Any chip that claims x86-compatibility but lacks licenses from Intel and AMD would be a sitting duck for patent infringement claims,” said Mr. Brookwood.

Even if Apple manages to avoid legal disputes with other chip designers when creating its own CPUs, it will have to hire additional engineers and develop numerous technologies that will outperform off-the-shelf chips from AMD and Intel. To date, no company has managed to leave Intel behind in terms of performance leadership for a significant amount of time.

“Apple would have to out-engineer Intel on Intel's playing field. Of the long list of companies that have tried to do this, including IBM, TI, AMD, NEC, and STM, only one, AMD, has attained any success, and their journey has been uneven at best,” reckoned the analyst from Insight 64.

The success of modern high-profile microprocessors depends not only on technologies that are under its hood, but also process technologies that are used to make them; it is impossible to pack a billion of transistors into chips that are produced using an outdated fabrication process since it will be too expensive to manufacture it. In around three years time Intel will have 14nm fabrication process, whereas other players in the industry will be one step behind with 20nm process technology. This can easily transform into overwhelming performance advantage Intel’s chips will have over everything else, including potential Apple’s CPUs.

Finally, even in case Apple manages to develop an ARM-based chip with performance comparable or higher than that of leading-edge x86 microprocessors, it will barely be able to transit all Mac OS clients and developers from x86 to ARM. The transition from Power to x86 in the mid-2000s was painful, but allowed the company to eventually gain market share. With ARM, nothing is guaranteed.

To put it shortly, it not only does not make sense for Apple to kick off a competition against Intel – one of its primary suppliers these days – but it will be impossible for the company to achieve any success on Intel’s playground.

Tags: Apple, Semiconductor, ARM, Power, JPR, Insight 64, AMD, Intel, x86


Comments currently: 17
Discussion started: 10/20/11 04:58:37 PM
Latest comment: 10/24/11 04:08:18 AM
Expand all threads | Collapse all threads


Agreed! Good analysis!
0 0 [Posted by: tokyojerry  | Date: 10/20/11 04:58:37 PM]

Last 3 paragraphs are most important and summarize the argument in a nutshell. Many tried, and only 1 competitor remains. But even then, AMD took almost a decade to design a brand new architecture from scratch (Bulldozer) and it can't even convincingly beat a $220 2500k CPU from Intel. And we aren't even seeing the best from Intel since they are in no rush to up clocks on Sandy Bridge due to lack of competition. In other words, the "sleeping" Intel is already so far ahead of everyone on x86 space, one can only dream about how much better Intel could have been if it had a company as good competing against it!
2 1 [Posted by: BestJinjo  | Date: 10/20/11 07:08:50 PM]
- collapse thread

The reason that AMD doesn't flat-out beat Intel is because Intel control's the x86 standard, and gets to decides which parts of the standards to license to AMD. AMD's not that far behind anyways, it's not like it's noticeable in real life, without a benchmark to tell you which is faster.

Other architectures have beaten Intel in performance, but none of them had the broad software support of x86 and Windows.

However, now that Windows 8 will run on ARM, there's no reason why ARM can't ramp up performance substantially.
0 2 [Posted by: dukie_bref  | Date: 10/22/11 11:20:58 AM]
That's one of the funniest excuses I've heard yet from an AMD fanboy. Intel and AMD have complete cross licenses with each other. They are each free to use any IP from the other company that they wish to use.

AMD doesn't compete with Intel right now because the new Faildozer architecture sucks! Plain and simple!
1 0 [Posted by: GreenChile  | Date: 10/23/11 02:33:07 PM]
They have cross-licensing of some IP, but not all. There are plenty of things that are not licensed to AMD, hence the picking and choosing of what to license.

For a long time, Intel didn't allow AMD to use SSSE3 (with 3 's'), SSE4/4.1 and other instructions, because they were giving Intel a performance advantage. The only reason AMD got to include some of them with Bulldozer and Brazos is because of the anti-trust case.

Not that this is going to affect your fanboyism one way or the other.
0 2 [Posted by: dukie_bref  | Date: 10/23/11 03:21:12 PM]
You are wrong, wrong, wrong! Where do you get this from? Intel and AMD have FULL cross license agreements. Let me say it again. Intel and AMD have FULL cross license agreements.

Is this what you do? Go around making up stuff to drum up sympathy for your favorite company?
0 0 [Posted by: GreenChile  | Date: 10/23/11 03:49:45 PM]
They dont give full license on all. Simple reason Intel and AMD will have no difference if they are all the same 100%. Can't you think of that?

A quote "A new, five-year patent cross-license agreement between AMD and Intel will give both companies broad access to each other's technologies" in which broad != all.
0 1 [Posted by: pogsnet  | Date: 10/23/11 05:26:07 PM]
What a whiny little fanboy post.

The problem is people like you who view Intel as a sports team, rather than a dangerous monopoly with way too much control over perhaps the most important industry in the world. Keep on cheering for them to "win it all", idiot.
0 2 [Posted by: dukie_bref  | Date: 10/24/11 04:08:18 AM]
ARM is in a completely different market: ramping up the performance is not so simple. The ARM chips are missing huge swathes of the features that would get them within range of Intel x86 performance.

Weirdly, Intel's advantage is x86, while ARM's advantage is not having x86. x86 is pretty crufted up, but at this point, we've got 20 years of work gone into optimising the hardware implementation of x86, and optimising compilers to generate good x86 machine code.

A clean break to a new architecture would be brilliant, but only after a few years work on both the hardware and software side. Intel has of course tried this before (Itanium), and even Intel failed to wean people off x86.

ARM's inroads are coming from the opposite direction though; it isn't a newer, faster better new architecture, but cheaper and good enough.
0 0 [Posted by: asc99c  | Date: 10/23/11 02:39:48 PM]
ARM's real advantage is not having the legacy bloat of supporting 1000+ old x86 instructions in order to be able to run old applications correctly.

They can add fewer, better instructions to improve IPC, and still have cores that are a tiny fraction the size of Bulldozer or Sandy Bridge.

Smaller core size means either more cores, higher clocks, or both, all while using less power.
0 1 [Posted by: dukie_bref  | Date: 10/23/11 03:24:39 PM]

nVidia has Kal-El or Tegra 3 has enough performance to (almost) equal to a Core 2 Duo, so I think that is plenty for anybody. About 99% of the people are the general public that browses the web, email, listen to audio or music, watch videos or movies, and use Microsoft Office. ARM processors can easily do this. Yes Intel Atom can also do this, but it has trouble handling Flash. ARM has aids or co-processors to help handle multimedia files like Flash with out wasting board space on the motherboard. Intel does not really have this, so they depend on the main processor and fancy SIMD instructions to handle multimedia data.

Apple can use still use iOS for Macbooks if they want to. It just matter if developers like Microsoft is willing to make an Office app for iOS. iWork could be ported into an iOS app. I do not think Macintosh or Mac OS will live any longer than version 10. Though Apple could create a Macbook that includes both iOS using ARM processors for the casual stuff and Mac OS using Intel processors for performance stuff.

I am OK with my Intel T7300 processor until Flash is used then my computer crawls. ARM processors will work just fine for me and the lower power consumption becomes a big plus.

FYI, Apple does not make processors. They just rebrand the processors. Apple could go with nVidia for their processor supplier or could stick with Samsung or go with Qualcomm.
1 0 [Posted by: tecknurd  | Date: 10/21/11 11:49:37 PM]
- collapse thread

Not Quite. Apple does have the manufacturing done by other corps such as Samsung, but they do now make their own changes to the initial design provided by ARM as well as add any SOC components they want.
0 0 [Posted by: xXero  | Date: 10/22/11 07:55:05 AM]
Got resources to back up your claims. As of right now, Apple contracts the designs to companies such as Samsung. This means that Samsung is told to make the changes. Apple does not have rights to make their own ARM processors. Re-branding does not make the company having any rights to ARM.
1 1 [Posted by: tecknurd  | Date: 10/22/11 04:12:56 PM]
Apple bought Intrinsity and PA Semi in order to make their own designs. Apple are an ARM licensee.

The fact that their A5 includes PowerVR SGX543MP2 graphics whilst Samsung's Exynos uses ARM Mali T600 shows that the two designs are significantly different now, whereas the A4 was a modified version of a Samsung/Intrinsity SoC.
0 0 [Posted by: psychobriggsy  | Date: 10/23/11 05:15:05 AM]
Still need proof. Buying a company that has the license to make ARM or x86 does not automatically give the company that is buying said company the rights or ARM or any processor architectures. Apple only has intellectual property of the technologies that Intrinsity and PA Semi have created during the buy out.

Apple picked Samsung as their ARM developer. Also Samsung has rights for PowerVR, Apple picked PowerVR for the graphics. Samsung went with their own instead of PowerVR because they think it is better.
0 1 [Posted by: tecknurd  | Date: 10/23/11 03:12:03 PM]

This is obvious.
0 0 [Posted by: zodiacfml  | Date: 10/22/11 11:43:52 PM]

The one place that it does make sense is in cost. A 17W Sandy Bridge is not a cheap chip for Apple to include in its MacBook Airs, whereas the cost of an ARM based SoC is often estimated at around $20. Even if a quad-core ARM Cortex A15 SoC cost $40 to Apple, it is a significant saving on the cost of a low power Intel CPU.

And these cost savings can allow Apple to retain its high margins whilst dropping the price of its products to be competitive with Ultrabooks from other manufacturers (not that they can make them cheaply anyway).
0 0 [Posted by: psychobriggsy  | Date: 10/23/11 05:12:45 AM]


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