The Message In The iPad

B4 A4: Will low power drive the pendulum back toward semi-custom processor design?


Well, the big tech news of the year so far was the announcement of Apple’s iPad!  And besides the price, the really big news for all of us former processor designers out there is the brain of the iPad – a fully-integrated SoC processor module called the “A4”.  And what’s exciting about that?  1GHz clock speed?  Been there.  45nm process?  Done that.  10 hours of battery life?  Uh huh…WHAT?!  TEN HOURS of battery life??!  Playing video (or video games) on a 9.7” XGA screen for ten hours?  Nice.

The A4 is a great example of the latest in low power design – lots of IP, custom integrated into a package that provides the best power and compute performance for a given application.  While we don’t know too much about the details of the A4, it seems clear that the team at Apple from PA Semiconductor has raised the bar of power efficiency.  It will be interesting to see how close an iPad can actually come to fulfilling the ten hour battery life claim, but if it can get anywhere close, it will truly open up a new category of mobile devices that are designed and optimized all the way down to highly integrated customized processors to provide unprecedented performance and power efficiency.

Many years ago, my first personal computer, an Apple II plus, with its 1MHz 6502 processor, did amazing things.  Since that time, the Z80, 8086, 6800 and their progeny have expanded the applications for computing and changed the world.  Over time, as research and development costs rose, we have pretty much settled on the x86 architecture for our computing devices.  But the recent emphasis in mobile computing and applications have pushed those capabilities way beyond the realm of answering phone calls and sending SMS messages.  We are at the point where the expansion of mobile platforms completely overlaps the movement of computing platforms to decrease power consumption and become more mobile.  Hard to say where it will all fall out, but competition is always a good thing!

And having multiple choices not only guarantees a solid supply of fun toys to play with, but also just might get a few of us former processor designers back to doing processor design – maybe at a higher level, with better integration, utilizing customizable cores, at much higher power efficiency – I think I can hear that pendulum starting to swing back the other way (again!).