The Apple A10 and ARM's Year of Judgement

If you are one to listen to tech rumors, you may have already heard a lot of chatter about what will come with this year's iPhone 7. Will it remove the headphone jack? Will it have two rear-facing cameras? Will those two cameras be exclusive to the Plus model? These are usually what people talk about when discussing the upcoming iPhone, and they deserve to be the main topics of discussion since these are user-facing features. However not nearly as many people talk about the other thing that is introduced with every new iPhone: the chipset.

Most people don't really get excited about what the Apple A10 chip will bring to the iPhone 7 because the story has largely been the same since Apple started designing their own silicon. Of course the A10 will be faster. Of course the A10 will be more power efficient. Of course the A10 will bring better battery life. I have no doubt that the A10 will stick to this story this year as well, but compared to previous iterations, I am especially excited about the A10. Why? Because 2016 is the year when we find out if an Apple chip can surpass an Intel chip in an almost apples-to-apples comparison.

Right now there are two dominant CPU architectures that rule the current computing world. On one hand is Intel's x86 architecture, which has ruled the PC and server space for decades, and on the other hand is the ARM architecture, whose simpler design has allowed it to power nearly every mobile device on the planet, including the iPhone.

For the longest time it looked like these two architectures would not directly compete with each other, but that is quickly changing. ARM has always remained dominant in the mobile space thanks to a very low wattage design, but recently Intel introduced the Core M CPU, whose wattage is just as low as ARM's and is similarly intended to be used in tablets without a cooling fan. On the other hand, Intel has historically remained ahead in performance thanks to having the best chip manufacturing technology in the world, but chip foundries like Samsung and TSMC have dramatically improved their own manufacturing processes, effectively reaching parity with Intel.

What this means is that we have only recently reached a point where ARM and x86 can be directly compared with everything else being equal. In fact this direct comparison was already made when Anandtech compared Apple's A9X to Intel's Core M. Both chips had similar power consumption, similar manufacturing technology, and similar use-case (to be used inside fanless tablets). The summary of their benchmarks is that the two CPUs constantly traded blows, but when the Core M is ahead, it is way ahead.

So the Core M is mostly ahead of the A9X in an apples-to-apples comparison. This must be a victory for x86, right? Well, not yet. While this comparison was already made possible in 2015, I think late 2016 is when the real comparison starts.

Intel appears to have picked all the low-hanging fruit when it comes to improving x86, meaning future Core M redesigns will probably achieve only minor performance gains without resorting to newer manufacturing processes.

There is still a chance, however, that Apple isn't done optimizing ARM. Apple's chips to-date have come with massive performance increases every year, thanks to a combination of major chip redesigns and better manufacturing technology. Because a better manufacturing process from either Intel, Samsung or TSMC will not be ready until 2017, any performance gains that Apple manages to get this year for the A10 or A10X will come entirely from chip design.

Since ARM and x86 are now at technology parity, the final outcome of Apple's A10 and A10X efforts will have huge ramifications in the ARM vs x86 debate. These ramifications include the viability of x86, the future of Intel's core business, and even the possibility of ARM-based Macs and PCs.

This is why I'm really excited for the next iPhone, and why September can't come soon enough!

Update: There appears to be rumors that TSMC will get their newest manufacturing process (10nm) in time for the Apple A10. While this is excellent news for anyone wanting better performance and power efficiency for this year's iOS devices, any comparisons made against Intel must be taken with a grain of salt since the A10 and A10X will be slightly ahead in manufacturing technology.

Note: The reason why I didn't use Qualcomm or Samsung chips in a comparison against Intel is because they are structured differently. For example: Both the A9X and Core M are dual-core CPUs, whereas the other ARM CPUs are quad-core, not quite apples-to-apples.

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