With an illusory flourish that only Apple could pull off — “Focus your attention on this shiny iPad 3!” — the magicians of Cupertino have quietly started shipping iOS devices with 32nm A5 SoCs. So far, the new $399 iPad 2 (iPad 2,4 in Apple nomenclature) and third-generation Apple TV have been confirmed to use the new chip, but it’s also possible that there’s a new generation of the iPhone 4S with a 32nm A5 at the helm.
The original A5 SoC (system-on-a-chip), found in the first iPad 2 and iPhone 4S, was built on Samsung’s 45nm process. The A5X SoC in the iPad 3, which has four GPU cores instead of two, is also 45nm. By moving to Samsung’s 32nm High-K Metal Gate (HKMG) process, the new A5 processor (S5L8942, pictured above) is 40% smaller than its predecessor (pictured below), uses around 30% less power, and is significantly cheaper for Samsung to produce — thus, no doubt, allowing Apple to retain its fat profit margins on the cut-price iPad 2.
As far as we can tell, this is the first mass-produced part to roll off Samsung’s 32nm HKMG process. Samsung has announced four of its own 32nm parts — the Exynos 4212, 4412, 5250, and 5450, with the 4212 was slated to power the Galaxy Nexus — but so far, nothing has emerged (the Galaxy Nexus was powered by TI’s OMAP4). It’s possible that the 32nm process wasn’t ready in time for the Exynos 4212, or it might just be a case of Apple having a huge amount of clout — it must be one of Samsung’s largest customers, after all.
With the low-level stuff out of the way, what does the 32nm A5 actually mean for users? Well, for a start, the new iPad 2 probably has significantly more battery life than the original iPad 2 — either that, or Apple has also combined the new SoC with smaller, cheaper batteries (definitely a possibility, to reach that $399 price point). Performance will be the same. Incidentally, if you recently bought an iPad 2 and it came with iOS 5.1 installed, you have the new 32nm part; if it came with iOS 5.0.1, you’re all out of luck.
More importantly, though, the 32nm A5 is a very strong indicator that the iPhone 5 — which should be released this year — will also have a 32nm SoC. As for whether this will be a 32nm A5X, or something entirely new (a quad-core A6?), we don’t know. It’s also likely that the iPad 3 will undergo a 32nm revision, too, reducing its power consumption and thus the need for the huge (and heavy) batteries that currently encumber it.
New 32nm A5 (APL2498/S5L8942) vs. old 45nm A5 (APL0498/S5L8940)
The shift to 32nm will further cement Apple’s dominance in the smartphone and tablet arena. In terms of power consumption — the most important metric when it comes to mobile — only devices powered by the 28nm Snapdragon S4 have a hope of competing. The 45nm Tegra 3 is growing longer in the tooth every day.
[Image credit: Chipworks]