Rumors of an iPhone 5s and iPad 5 are already circulating. Nothing too intense yet but they are there. When these two devices do land they will likely sport an A7 and A7X, respectively. That is, unless Apple pulls the plug on its custom chip design and opts for an off-the-shelf Intel product. This is not our hypothesis but it is out there, even on Wall Street.
At the end of November Doug Freedman, an RBC Capital Market analyst, floated the hypothesis that Intel would fab Apple processors if Apple moved the iPad to an Intel processor. It almost suggests the Apple-designed application processors (APs) are somehow a stopgap until something better appears. This seems like the perfect backdrop to look at the “A-series” family, think about the evolution therein, and weigh the evidence for Apple’s semiconductor design intentions.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves let’s consider the A6 and A6X. The debut of the A6 along with the iPhone 5 was pretty much expected from both the hyperactive Apple rumor mill and the simple logic of refreshing the AP in sync with the iPhone.
However, the appearance of the A6X, some 41 days later inside the iPad 4 was very much unexpected. It was a little more than half way into the “usual” annual iPad refresh cycle and there was only a vague, late warning from the Apple pundits.
Die photographs of the A6 and A6X that were first published by Chipworks, with our added annotations, are reproduced below. Probably the single most striking feature of both is the in-house designed CPU. Going further, it was a custom design where the layout was performed manually, instead of using the common automated “place and route” approach. In their discussion of the A6 ChipWorks commented: "This is a more expensive and time-consuming method of layout. However it usually results in a faster maximum clock rate, and sometimes results in higher density." They go on to say: "In fact, with the exception of Intel CPUs, it's one of the first custom laid out digital cores we’ve seen in years!"
There isn't much to add except to say that Apple is serious about and making considerable investment in their design capabilities. So, regardless of the reason for the custom design, this clearly supports the hypothesis that Apple is not producing placeholders while it waits for an Intel processor.