Apple's Custom Mobile Chip Designs Gradually Expanding to Include Graphics Hardware

After years of recruiting graphics architects, Apple has gradually shifted from licensing PowerVR graphics to designing its own custom GPUs for iPhones, according to David Kanter at Real World Technologies.

The new graphics processor is said to have first shipped with the A8 chip in the iPhone 6, with successive versions built into in the A9 and A10 Fusion chips powering the iPhone 6s and iPhone 7 lineups respectively.

a10
For context, Kanter said a modern GPU has three major components that work together in harmony to render graphics:

The first is the fixed-function graphics hardware, which is responsible for tasks like processing API commands, triangle rasterization, and raster output. The second is the shader core, which is the heart of the GPU and executes programmable shaders (e.g., vertex, geometry, pixel, and compute shaders). Last, the graphics driver is the software that runs on the CPU and ties everything together, coordinating the activities of the GPU. The driver transforms graphics applications written in the Metal or OpenGL ES APIs into a series of commands for the fixed-function hardware and programmable shaders that execute on the shader cores.

Apple previously relied on PowerVR chipmaker Imagination Technologies to supply fixed-function graphics hardware, shader cores, and drivers for older-generation iPhones, but Kanter said Apple has since replaced the programmable shader cores with its own more efficient and higher performance design, and developed its own driver and compiler to emit code for its architecture.

While Apple's GPU architecture has never been publicly documented, Kanter contrasted information from WWDC 2016 sessions and frameworks against basic PowerVR compiler and optimization manuals, concluding that it is clear that the shader core in Apple's GPU is architecturally very different from the PowerVR line.

Apple's custom GPUs still appear to use some of the PowerVR fixed-function graphics hardware, but it is clear the company's dependance on Imagination Technologies has decreased significantly in recent years. Kanter speculates that if Imagination Technologies were acquired, or fell behind from a technical standpoint, Apple could simply design its own fixed-function hardware.

imagination-john-metcalfe
Apple was actually rumored to acquire Imagination Technologies earlier this year, but later said it did not plan to make an offer on the England-based company at the time. Nevertheless, in recent months, Apple has recruited at least two dozen employees from the chipmaker, including former COO John Metcalfe, and those graphics engineers may have played a role in developing Apple's custom GPUs.

Kanter said Apple has in fact assembled a GPU design team and a graphics driver team that together implemented a large portion of the custom GPUs in the A8, A9, and A10 Fusion chips. In addition to former PowerVR engineers, this team likely includes recent hires from AMD, Google, Intel, and Nvidia.

The transition towards custom GPUs has is said to have resulted in several strategic advantages for Apple beyond increased performance and efficiency, including tighter ecosystem control, better time-to-market and scheduling, reducing its reliance on its suppliers, and reducing bugs without its competitors benefiting.

Full-Length Article: Look Inside Apple’s Custom GPU for the iPhone

Top Rated Comments

Quu Avatar
64 months ago
This is surprising. They've been making GPU's for their shipping phones for two years and we never found out.
Score: 16 Votes (Like | Disagree)
keysofanxiety Avatar
64 months ago
Yet every year or every other year we buy a phone an it's BLAZING fast because our two year old BLAZING fast phone now lags.
Odd, as my 5S seems fine. Even a little snappier on iOS 10 compared to iOS 9.

Performance plummeting with iOS updates happened a lot back in the day. Just look at the iPhone 4. A gorgeous, capable phone was utterly crippled by software.

But that was largely due to the hand-over-fist performance increases that engineers managed to achieve with sub-mobile chips. Performance has grown exponentially. Much like the CPU boom of the late '90s.

Now even an iPhone 5 has an appropriate experience on iOS 10. And that's 5 years old. Look at the competitors and you'd be lucky to get an update at all for a phone that age.
Score: 10 Votes (Like | Disagree)
jdillings Avatar
64 months ago
I expect eventually they'll cut ties with Intel and bring it all in house so they aren't so dependent on Intel and their product roadmap.
Score: 10 Votes (Like | Disagree)
julesme Avatar
64 months ago
I think Apple's chip design will become a more critical differentiator vs. Google/Android and Microsoft/Windows as those two companies push more aggressively into building their own phones and computers and market an integrated hardware/software experience.
Score: 9 Votes (Like | Disagree)
sully54 Avatar
64 months ago
I have a feeling Apple will eventually replace integrated graphics on macs with in-house custom developed chips.
Score: 8 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Omega Mac Avatar
64 months ago
A dedicated high performance per watt GPU in future ARM'd macs. This will be the fruit of the ARM race.
Score: 8 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Top Stories

mac scanner permission error

Apple Says Fix Planned for 'You Do Not Have Permission to Open the Application' Error When Using a Scanner on Mac [Updated]

Saturday August 14, 2021 6:15 am PDT by
Update 23/9: Apple has updated its support document indicating that this issue can be resolved by installing the latest macOS Big Sur 11.6 update. In a newly published support document on its website, Apple has acknowledged an error that some users may receive when they try to use a scanner with a Mac in the Image Capture app, Preview app, or the Printers & Scanners section of System...
original iphone

Phil Schiller Says iPhone Was 'Earth-Shattering' Ten Years Ago and Remains 'Unmatched' Today

Monday January 9, 2017 7:15 am PST by
To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the iPhone, Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller sat down with tech journalist Steven Levy for a wide-ranging interview about the smartphone's past, present, and future. The report first reflects upon the iPhone's lack of support for third-party apps in its first year. The argument inside Apple was split between whether the iPhone should be a closed...
Apple Prefer Lightning Over USB C Feature

iPhone Sticking With Lightning Port Over USB-C for 'Foreseeable Future'

Tuesday March 2, 2021 9:32 am PST by
Apple will retain the Lightning connector on the iPhone for the "foreseeable future," with no intention of switching to USB-C, according to reliable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo. In spite of much of the industry moving toward USB-C, Apple will not be using it to replace the Lightning connector on the iPhone 13, or indeed on any iPhone model for the time being. In a note seen by MacRumors yesterday,...
apple california streaming event

Apple Event Announced: 'California Streaming' on September 14 With iPhone 13, Apple Watch Series 7 Expected

Tuesday September 7, 2021 9:03 am PDT by
Apple today announced that it will be holding a special event on Tuesday, September 14 at 10:00 a.m. The event will take place at the Steve Jobs Theater on the Apple Park campus in Cupertino, California. As with WWDC and last year's fall events, this new event will be held digitally with no members of the media invited to attend in person. Apple will likely provide pre-taped segments for...
iOS 15 icon on phone

Apple Seeds Sixth Betas of iOS and iPadOS 15 to Developers

Tuesday August 17, 2021 10:05 am PDT by
Apple today seeded the sixth betas of iOS and iPadOS 15 to developers for testing purposes, with the updates coming one week after Apple released the fifth betas. Registered developers can download the profile for the iOS and iPadOS betas from the Apple Developer Center, and once the profile is installed, beta updates will be available over the air. iOS 15 is a major update that...
youtube apple tv

YouTube Discontinuing 3rd-Generation Apple TV App, AirPlay Still Available

Wednesday February 3, 2021 3:09 pm PST by
YouTube is planning to stop supporting its YouTube app on the third-generation Apple TV models, where YouTube has long been available as a channel option. A 9to5Mac reader received a message about the upcoming app discontinuation, which is set to take place in March.Starting early March, the YouTube app will no longer be available on Apple TV (3rd generation). You can still watch YouTube on...
omg lightning cable comparison

Security Researcher Develops Lightning Cable With Hidden Chip to Steal Passwords

Thursday September 2, 2021 6:59 am PDT by
A normal-looking Lightning cable that can used to steal data like passwords and send it to a hacker has been developed, Vice reports. The "OMG Cable" compared to Apple's Lightning to USB cable. The "OMG Cable" works exactly like a normal Lightning to USB cable and can log keystrokes from connected Mac keyboards, iPads, and iPhones, and then send this data to a bad actor who could be over a...
maroon5memories

Apple Collaborates With Maroon 5 to Add 'Memories' Song to Photos App

Wednesday September 25, 2019 12:02 pm PDT by
Apple has teamed up with Maroon 5 to add the group's new song "Memories" to the Memories feature in the Photos app, allowing it to be used for photo slide show creations, reports Billboard. "Memories" will be available as a soundtrack option for a limited time and it is available to iPhone and iPad users running the latest iOS 13 and iPadOS software. Memories in the Photos app are created ...
it home ecommerce app iphone 13

iPhone 13 to Launch on September 17, AirPods 3 on September 30, Claims Report

Wednesday August 25, 2021 2:42 am PDT by
Apple may be planning to launch the iPhone 13 on Friday, September 17 and third-generation AirPods on Thursday, September 30, according to an image of an e-commerce app discovered by Chinese language site IT Home. The screenshot, originally posted by Weibo account @PandaIsBald, suggests all four iPhone 13 models will go on sale on September 17, followed by the AirPods 3 on September 30....
Top Stories 75 Thumbnail

Top Stories: Last-Minute iPhone 13 Rumors, Apple Announces App Store Changes, and More

Saturday September 4, 2021 6:00 am PDT by
The finish line is in sight! Apple's annual iPhone event is likely just a week or so away and all eyes will be on the company as it unveils the next version of its most popular product line. With any luck, we'll also see the next-generation Apple Watch and perhaps even some new AirPods. Other news this week saw Apple making some more changes to its App Store policies in response to a...