Apple on designing the A14 Bionic for the iPad Air and beyond

Building a beast

At a high level, the A14 seems similar to Apple’s other Bionic chipsets. This system-on-a-chip packs a six-core CPU — two cores high-performance cores and four for lower-priority tasks — just as the A12 and A13 did. The number of GPU cores here has also remained unchanged at four. Don’t be fooled by these passing similarities, though: Because the A14 was designed for a 5nm manufacturing process, there’s more going on in this system-on-a-chip than ever before. But let’s take a step back first. The shift to ever-denser chipset designs has been happening for years, and shows no sign of slowing.

The A14 might be the world’s first commercially available 5nm chip, but Apple’s rivals aren’t far behind. Qualcomm first 5nm mobile chipset, the Snapdragon 875, could debut as soon as December at the company’s virtual Snapdragon Summit. And then there’s Samsung, which — in addition to manufacturing those Snapdragons for Qualcomm — has begun pulling back the curtain on its 5nm Exynos 1080 chipset.

The main benefit of chips based on these new manufacturing processes is that they’re more densely packed with transistors, incredibly small switches that can control the flow of electrons. These serve as the foundation for logic gates, which beget integrated circuits, which beget full-blown processors.

In any case, the shift to 5nm meant Apple had far more transistors to devote to all the systems on the chip. Think: 11.8 billion, up from the 8.5 billion the company had to work with in last year’s A13 Bionic. As you’d expect, that huge uptick in transistor count gave Apple the extra processing bits needed to build significantly faster, more efficient CPU and GPU cores. But it also gave Apple the latitude to make more subtle improvements to a device’s overall experience.

“One of the ways chip architects think about features is not necessarily directly mapping [transistors] to a user feature in the product so much as enabling the underlying technology, like software in the graphics stack to be able to leverage a new capability in the GPU,” Millet said. “That will inevitably come as a visual feature in a game, or in a snappy transition in the user interface.”

The switch to a 5nm design for the A14 also gave Apple the latitude to devote more of its transistor “budget” to components beyond just the CPU and GPU. And when it comes to achieving the best all-around experience, companies like Apple, Samsung and Huawei — the only other companies to design chips for their own mobile devices — have a distinct advantage. In this case, because Apple exercises full control over what goes into its systems-on-chips, it can invest in additional processing cores and components before they go mainstream.

The best example is the company’s Neural Engine, a component that debuted in the iPhone X’s A11 chipset to accelerate the sorts of neural networks needed for features like secure face unlocking, voice recognition for Siri and augmented reality, among other things. Apple was among the first to integrate a dedicated neural accelerator into its chips — Huawei announced the Kirin 970 and its neural processing unit a week before Apple revealed its own Neural Engine, and Samsung and Qualcomm only caught up later.