Flashback: How the Apple M1 evolved from Apple’s iPad chipsets

Apple’s first custom chipset, the Apple A4, was launched in 2010 with the original iPad and was also featured in the iPhone 4 a few months later. The A4 was manufactured by Samsung and used an upgraded Cortex-A8 CPU core called “Hummingbird”.

Hummingbird was co-developed by Samsung and Intrinsity and was announced in 2009 as “the faster ARM Cortex-A8 processor in the world.” Multiple adjustments had to be made for the core to reach its 1GHz target. Apple acquired Intrinity just months after it unveiled the iPad. And a few years before that, the PA had taken over Semi.

After those major acquisitions, Apple started working on internal chipset designs for use in its wearable products. Today’s story starts in 2012, when we will focus on the enhanced X-series chips, the predecessors of the groundbreaking Apple M1. The AX chips are mainly used in iPads, but they also occasionally popped up in Apple TVs.

The second generation iPad introduced the Apple A5 to the world in 2011. It still used off-the-shelf components, Cortex-A9 CPU cores from ARM and PowerVR SGX543 GPU cores from Imagination. The 3rd generation iPad came out a year later with an improved version of that chip called the Apple A5X, which got the ball rolling.

The A5X doubled the GPU cores (from MP2 to MP4) and also included a new quad-channel memory controller, offering data transfer rates of up to 12.8 GB/s, about three times the bandwidth of the A5.

Flashback: How the Apple M1 evolved from Apple's iPad chipsets

Future AX chipsets would follow the same game plan – use the same hardware, just more. Tablets are bigger than phones, meaning they have bigger batteries and more surface area to dissipate heat, so they can handle the more powerful chipsets.

The Apple A6 is notable for introducing the first custom CPU core designed in-house by Apple called “Swift”. The GPU still came from Imagination. The A6X was a bit of a let down as it just added an extra GPU core.

A few years later came the Apple A8X, the first in the series to expand both CPU hardware and GPU. It added an extra Typhoon core, for a total of three, while doubling the number of GPU cores to eight. The A9X went back to the same CPU as the regular A9, but that was the last time – from then on all AX chipsets would have bigger CPUs

Flashback: How the Apple M1 evolved from Apple's iPad chipsets

The 2016 Apple A10 chipset was the company’s first to adopt a big.LITTLE architecture. It had two large Hurricane cores along with two small Zephyr cores. A year later, the A10X came with three of each, while also doubling the number of GPU cores.

Small cores are great for efficiency, but having more than a few doesn’t add much performance. Therefore, the 2018 Apple A12X chipset only doubled the large number of CPU cores (to four), while using the same number of small cores (also four). The GPU was upgraded to a 7-core design, an 8-core version should arrive in 2020 as Apple A12Z.

Let’s jump to 2020 – after years of using Intel processors, Apple said goodbye to them and announced the first batch of Apple M1-powered Macs. This also marked a move from x86 to ARM, the same ARM instruction set that powered its iPhones and iPads.

And that’s no coincidence, the Apple M1 used slightly modified versions of the components in the A14 (the chip in the iPhone 12 and 4th generation iPad Air) – the large Firestorm cores and the small Icestorm cores, the same GPU architecture too. .

Flashback: How the Apple M1 evolved from Apple's iPad chipsets

But as we’ve already seen, the trick to making the chipset faster is to add more cores. The M1 doubled the large CPU cores and doubled the GPU (although it offered chips with 7-core GPUs as a cost-saving measure). As with the 12X, the tiny CPU cores were left untouched. It helped that Apple’s designs were already leading the way in terms of both performance and efficiency (TSMC deserves some credit for that), so the M1 handled desktop tasks with ease, even when passively cooled.

The Apple M2 The chipset announced earlier this month follows the same pattern, but this time it is based on the A15 chipset (iPhone 13). The M1 had Pro, Max and Ultra variants, the M2 will certainly have that too.

These just use different multipliers, for example the M1 Pro has 50% or 100% more large CPU cores than the base M1 and doubles the GPU cores. The Pro has reduced the small cores to two, but as discussed before, only a few are needed. The Max uses the same CPU formula, but offers 3 to 4 times as many GPU cores as the base M1. The Ultra doubles the CPU and GPU resources (it’s actually made up of two Pro chips).

2012/2012 Apple A5 A5X
Large CPU cores 2x Cortex-A9 2x Cortex-A9
Small CPU cores
2012 Apple A6 A6X
Large CPU cores 2x Swift 2x Swift
Small CPU cores
2014 Apple A8 Apple A8X
Large CPU cores 2x Typhoon 3x Typhoon
Small CPU cores
GPU 6XT 4-core 6XT 8 core
2015 Apple A9 Apple A9X
Large CPU cores 2x Twister 2x Twister
Small CPU cores
GPU 7XT 6 core 7XT 12 core
2016/2017 Apple A10 Apple A10X
Large CPU cores 2x hurricane 3x hurricane
Small CPU cores 2x Zephyr 3x Zephyr
GPU 7XT GT 6 core 12 core
2018/2020 Apple A12 Apple A12X/A12Z
Large CPU cores 2x Vortex 4x Vortex
Small CPU cores 4x Storm 4x Storm
GPU G11P 4-core 7/8-core
2020 Apple A14 Apple M1
Large CPU cores 2x Firestorm 4x Firestorm
Small CPU cores 4x Ice storm 4x Ice storm
GPU Apple 4-core Apple 7/8 core
2021/2022 Apple A15 Apple M2
Large CPU cores 2x Avalanche 4x Avalanche
Small CPU cores 4x Snowstorm 4x Snowstorm
GPU 4-core 8/10 core

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