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Teardown of Apple's A6 Chip Reveals Manual Layout of Custom Dual-Core CPU

iFixit and Chipworks have partnered on a teardown of the A6 system-on-a-chip, Apple's custom design that powers the iPhone 5. While several of the high-level details such as 1 GB of RAM and a dual-core CPU paired with triple-core graphics have already been shared, the teardown confirms all of these details with high-resolution images showing the various components of the chip.

Perhaps most notably, the custom ARM-based CPU developed by Apple for the A6 appears to have been manually laid out on the die, an expensive and time-consuming process but one that can offer greater efficiency than automatic layout.
- When compared to the rigid, efficient layout of the GPU cores directly below it, the layout of the ARM cores looks a little homespun—at first.

- Generally, logic blocks are automagically laid out with the use of advanced computer software. However, it looks like the ARM core blocks were laid out manually—as in, by hand.

- A manual layout will usually result in faster processing speeds, but it is much more expensive and time consuming.

- The manual layout of the ARM processors lends much credence to the rumor that Apple designed a custom processor of the same caliber as the all-new Cortex-A15, and it just might be the only manual layout in a chip to hit the market in several years.

The report also takes a look into the die, where it confirms that the A6 is manufactured using Samsung's 32-nanometer HKMG process that was trialled earlier this year with the A5 that made its way into the third-generation Apple TV and the revised iPad 2.

Finally, iFixit and Chipworks took a look at a number of other chips from the iPhone 5, sharing die photos from Qualcomm's MDM9615M modem and RTR8600 RF transceiver, a Cirrus Logic audio amplifier chip, and Murata's Wi-Fi/Bluetooth module incorporating a chip from Broadcom with other components.

Top Rated Comments

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89 months ago
I love looking at die photos. Makes me proud to be human. Honestly, look at what our species has achieved. In less than 50 years we've shrunk the computing power of a whole warehouse of vacuum tubes into something so small we can't see the circuitry with our naked eyes.
Rating: 26 Votes
89 months ago
so it's dual core, but can beat the shizz out of quad core phones. awesome !!
Rating: 13 Votes
89 months ago

why didn't they give out all those amazing specs at the keynote? this is absolutely amazing! job(s) well done

Because barraging people with specs doesn't tell most customers anything useful...
Rating: 11 Votes
89 months ago

can someone explain this? does it mean that the initial design was created by hand? or every single phone has a hand made chip

Yes, each chip is handmade. They require people with tiny hands to lay out each one. Which is why they employ children (and elves when they are available). This is also why there's a backlog of iPhone 5s, as it can take weeks to months to make each chip. So if you place an order now, it could take many months before the chipmaker gets to your order. But rest assured, that chip will be handmade to your exact specifications. That's the luxury of a bespoke chip.
Rating: 8 Votes
89 months ago
Will somebody do a video so we can all know if the thing will blend???

Rating: 7 Votes
89 months ago

Logistics, and manufactured by Samsung? Not apple, and the A15 core is a ARM design, not an Apple design. As for Innovation the Krait core does something very similar to the Apple A6 and was brought out to the market over 6 months ago. I'm not sure how this is any innovation on Apple's part. The iphone 6 only really has one new innovation it brings to the market...Apple Maps...and we all know how most people out there feel about it.

Did you even read the article? You do realize this isn't an A15 core, right?

You've seen the iPhone 6? You must have some super high clearance at Apple. :D

Edit: What device is using the Krait core? Do we have any benchmarks comparing the 2? The innovation in this design is the effort Apple went through to make it the most efficient and also most powerful mobile processor currently on the market.
Rating: 7 Votes
89 months ago

why didn't they give out all those amazing specs at the keynote? this is absolutely amazing! job(s) well done

Because even when Apple is ahead in a specs game, it doesn't want to get into or encourage spec-whoring because it's a race they eventually can lose. They prefer to focus on what you can DO rather than how many more gigahertz or whatever it contain than their competitors.
Rating: 7 Votes
89 months ago
(Just to pile on the joy of explaining cool things...)

Integrated circuits, CPUs in particular, in effect have billions of parts. Hooking them all together to create a fast & reliable CPU is way beyond the capability of humans; instead of thinking about how each "transistor" must be connected, we've figured out how to describe the goal to a computer and wrote programs that would automatically figure out how to connect all those billions of parts together (and it works!).

Unfortunately, in automating design of such a complex system not everything gets done quite as well as it could be. It will work, and work well, but maybe not as close to perfect as possible. In the iPhone 5 case, Apple had people do some of that typically-automated work, working long & hard on mind-numbing complexities & nuances, designing something which worked better & faster than computers could generate.

Having hand-designed an integrated circuit consisting of a few hundred "transistors", and written software to auto-design more complex circuits, I'm very impressed by the software used to arrange billions of transistors, and even more impressed that those billions were then re-arranged by humans to create something even faster.

BTW: the term "lay out" refers to a process similar to how a printer would "lay out" a page (paper or web) of text & pictures in various colors, deciding what goes where and being aware of the interaction thereof. In a sense an integrated circuit is produced by drawing a picture and then "printing" it, just with weird chemicals having strange electrical properties and printed really really really small.
Rating: 6 Votes
89 months ago

can someone explain this? does it mean that the initial design was created by hand? or every single phone has a hand made chip

it is not about the production or a guy with very tiny fingers moving around the parts. chip makers design the components (little boxes) of a chip with a chip making program. Usually they let the program to decide how to arrange and place the parts. Imagine how annoying is to arrange thousand of little squares of different sizes so everything is efficient and form a big square with little spaces in between and respecting lots of crazy arrangement rules.

Here handmade means that some engineers decided to write "the blueprint" that must be delivered to the fabric arranging those parts by hand.
Rating: 5 Votes
89 months ago

Trying to explain ASIC design to people with no computer engineering experience is like trying to speak to a tree and make it understand Shakespear. People dealing with ASIC is like working on an Alien planet speaking an Alien language... That's why they are relatively well paid... (but perhaps still not well paid enough compared to your average Wall Street type who does nothing but trying to steal money from the average joe)

Simpler yet, just enjoy your iPhone 5 and know that every detail received immense clever innovations, not the otherwise that pundits claimed.

Hey, Mr. Condescending. I do not have a background in computer engineering, but I can certainly appreciate the explanations given here.
Rating: 4 Votes

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