Apple smartphone chips vs Qualcomm over the years

The 8th wonder of the modern world is the development of the powerful smartphone System-On-a-Chip (SOC). We track the development of Apple’s A-series SOC which is consistently on the bleeding edge and compare them to their biggest competitor, Qualcomm’s SnapDragon. Posted by erwinkarim on 9:22 AM, November 3, 2022 Last updated on 11:17 AM, November 25, 2022 Filed in: evolution, a-series chip, apple, a16, qualcomm, snapdragon series,

Apple is known for their sleek products and industry leading designs, but in the background, they are also one of the leading chip designers in the world. Their System-on-Chip (SOC) which runs their best selling iPhones are legendary, but Apple has been playing with and designing ARM chips far longer than you think. Here we study the evolution of the Apple A-series SOC which generally serves as the main processor for their iPhones, iPads and other devices.

In short, be prepared to be amazed by the leaps and bounds that Apple and their competitors have made in regards to what’s possible in a mobile phone chip.

Background history

For many, there is no real need to make your own microprocessor that powers your own product. Every other company, including Samsung, HP, Dell and even Google (until recently) relies on other people to make the chips that power their product. With good reason: designing and building chips is no easy task and it is best to leave it to specialists, because it is a very specialized job.

Apple, on the other hand, designs their own chip out of necessity. Apple did approach Intel to design and supply chips to what will eventually power their new product: a smartphone. Intel foolishly declined citing seeing no big future for underpowered handheld computers.

Apple, as always, is a company that is focused more on a long term vision than the rush to push features and products as fast as possible. So, designing their own chip is within their goals because they have a vision on the iPhone and they see no one will supply the right mobile chip to realized their vision.

Through a series of acquisitions, talent searching, hiring and polishing, they build their dream team and the result is their first Apple designed SOC which powers the first iPad: the A4 SOC. And of course, they don’t stop there. A new feature here and a performance improvement there results is the family of Apple Silicon that we see today.

Mobile Chip History

Over the years, Qualcomm of San Diego has been Apple’s biggest competitor in the chip designing space. So naturally, we track the progress between both and how well they did over the years.

Year Apple Qualcomm
2010

A4

  • 45nm construction; estimated 145 million transistors
  • First Apple designed chip, but based on Cortex A8 processor
  • 1 CPU core; PowerVR GPU SGX535
  • Went into iPad 1, iPhone 4, iPod Touch 4, Apple TV 2

S2

  • 45nm construction
  • 1 compute core, Adreno 205 GPU, Hexagon DSP
2011

A5

  • 45nm construction (later 32nm); estimated 200 million transistors
  • Based on Cortex A9 chip
  • Have a dedicated image signal processor
  • 1 / 2 CPU cores; PowerVR GPU SGX543MP2
  • Variants include A5X which went into iPad 3. A bigger GPU
  • Went into iPhone 4s, iPad 2, iPad Mini, iPod Touch 5, Apple TV 3

S3

  • 45nm construction
  • 2 compute cores (Scorpion), Adreno 220 GPU, Hexagon DSP
2012

A6

  • 32nm construction;
  • First Apple designed chip. Based on ARMv7 instruction set.
  • 2 compute cores, PowerVR SGX543MP3 GPU
  • Went into iPhone 5 and iPhone 5c
  • Variants includes A6X that is used in iPad 4

S4 Pro

  • 45nm construction
  • 2x compute cores (Cortex A5), Adreno 203 GPU, Hexagon DSP
  • Bluetooth 3.0
2013

A7

  • 28nm construction; 1 billion transistors
  • 2 CPU cores; PowerVR G6430 GPU
  • Went into iPhone 5s, iPad Air 1, iPad Mini 2 and iPad Mini 3
  • New: First 64-bit processor
  • New: M7 motion co-processor
  • New: ARMv8 instruction set
  • New: Secure Enclave to keep encrypted data on chip. Used for TouchID

SnapDragon 800

  • Replaces the S-series as top of the line mobile SOC
  • 28nm construction
  • 4 compute (Krait) cores, Adreno 330 GPU, Hexagon DSP
  • Bluetooth 4.0 support, 802.11ac Wi-Fi
2014

A8

  • 20nm construction; 2 billion transistors
  • 2 CPU cores; PowerVR 6XT GPU
  • Went into iPhone 6, iPod Touch 6, iPad Mini 4, Apple TV 4, HomePod,
  • Morphs into A8X which went into iPad Air 2
  • New: custom shader cores by Apple
  • Subject of a ligitation between Apple and University of Wisconsin

SnapDragon 808/810

  • 20nm construction. 2.5 billion transistors.
  • 6 compute (2 performance + 4 efficiency) cores, Adreno 430 GPU, Hexagon V56 DSP
  • SnapDragon 810 has 8 compute (4 + 4) cores
  • First 64-bit mobile processor from Qualcomm
  • X10 LTE internal modem. Supports Bluetooth 4.1 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi
2015

A9

  • 16nm / 14 nm construction. 2 billion transistors
  • 2 CPU cores, PowerVR GPU 7XT
  • Went into iPhone 6s, iPhone SE, iPad 5
  • M9 motion co-processor
  • New image processor
  • New: dedicated crypto engine to storage encryption
  • Chipgate: alledge that Samsung fabricated A9 chip has a shorter battery life
  • First SOC to support ARKit
2016

A10 Fusion

  • 16nm construction; 3.3 billion transistors
  • 4 compute cores: 2 performance + 2 efficiency; PowerVR 7XT GT7600 series GPU; Some of the graphic shaders is custom made.
  • Performance controller to decide which task is best suited for with compute cores
  • Went into iPhone 7, iPod Touch 7, iPad 6 and iPad 7
  • Variant into T2 SOC which used in Apple Macs for TouchID, storage encryption and media processing
  • Other variant includes A10X Fusion which runs the iPad Pro 2
  • Adds HEIF and HEVC hardware encoding
  • M10 motion co-processor
  • New: first quad-core chip by Apple
  • New: 64-bit ARM chip by Apple. First in the industry to introduce 64-bit in ARM
  • New: InFO packaging

SnapDraogn 820/821

  • 14nm FinFET construction. 2.0 billion transistors.
  • 4 compute cores, Adreno 530 GPU, Hexagon 680 for AI workload, Spectra ISP
  • X12 LTE modem, 802.11ad Wi-Fi support.
2017

A11 Bionic

  • 10nm construction; 4.3 billion transistors
  • 6 compute cores: 2 performance + 4 efficiency; 3 GPU cores, Unknown number of neural cores
  • Went into iPhone 8 and iPhone X
  • Updated performance controller which allows all compute cores can be used simutelously, instead of either performance or efficiency in the A10.
  • New: M11 motion co-processor and new image processor to do computational photography (potrait mode)
  • New: First Apple design graphic cores
  • New: Neural Engine. First processor with Neural Engine. Dedicated to AI task like face recognition for Animoji and FaceID.

SnapDraogn 835

  • 8 compute cores (4 performance + 4 efficiency), Adreno 540 (4 cores) GPU, Hexagon 682 for AI workloads, Spectra 180 for ISP
  • X16 internal modem. Supports LTE, 802.11 ad, and Bluetooth 5.0
2018

A12 Bionic

  • 7nm FinFET construction; 6.9 billion transistors
  • 6 compute cores: 2 performance + 4 efficiency; 4 GPU cores; 8 neural cores
  • Went into iPhone Xs, iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, iPad Air 3, iPad Mini 5, iPad 8, Apple TV 4K 2021
  • Other variants includes A12X which runs on iPad Pro 2018 and A12Z which runs on iPad Pro 2020. They have 8 CPU cores, and the A12X has 7 GPU cores while the A12Z has 8 GPU cores. The A12Z also kickstart the Apple Silicon move in form of Developer Transition Kit, a Mac Mini with an A12Z as the CPU.
  • New: FinFET process in manufacturing. First consumer product to do so.

SnapDraogn 845

  • 10nm FinFET construction
  • 8 compute cores (4 performance + 4 efficiency), Adreno 630 (2 cores) GPU, Hexagon 635 for AI workloads, Spectra 280 for ISP
2019

A13 Bionic

  • 7nm (N7P) construction; 8.5 billion transistors
  • 6 compute cores: 2 performance, 4 efficiency; 4 GPU cores; 8 neural cores
  • Went into iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, iPad 9, iPhone SE 2, Apple Studio Display
  • New: AMX accelerators. Helps with matrix calculations

SnapDragon 855/855+

  • 7nm (N7) construction
  • 8 compute (1 prime + 3 performance + 4 efficiency) cores. Adreno 640 GPU, Hexagon 690 for AI, and Spectra 380 for ISP
  • X25 internal modem, X50 external modem for 5G
2020

A14 Bionic

  • 5nm (N5) construction; 11.8 billion transistors
  • 6 compute coreS: 2 performance, 4 efficiency; 4 GPU cores; 16 neural cores
  • 2nd generation AMX accelerators
  • Went into iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, iPad Air 4, iPad 10
  • Morphs into M1 Processor which kickstart Apple Silicon Macs

SnapDragon 865/865+

  • 2nd Gen 7nm (N7P) construction
  • 8 compute (1 prime + 3 performance, + 4 efficiency) compute cores, Adreno 650 GPU, Hexagon 698 for AI accelerators, Spectra 480 for ISP
  • X55 internal modem. Support 5G and Wi-Fi 6 ready
  • First to support 8K video recording
2021

A15 Bionic

  • 5nm (N5P) construction; 15 billion transistors
  • 6 compute: 2 performance, 4 efficiency; 4 or 5 GPU cores, 16 neural cores
  • New: Media Engine to handle ProRes video files
  • Went into iPhone 13, iPhone 13 Pro, Apple TV 4K (2022)
  • Encoding support for HEVC and H.264. Decoding support for HEVC, H.265, MPEG-part 2, and Motion JPEG

SnapDragon 888/888+

  • 5nm (5LPE) construction. ~10 billion transistors.
  • 8 compute cores (1 prime + 3 performance + 4 efficiency) cores, Adreno 660 GPU, Hexagon 780 AI accelerators, Spectra 500 for ISP
  • X60 internal modem. Support 5G, Bluetooth 5.2, WiFi-6 ready
  • Supports HDR content playback
2022

A16 Bionic

  • 4nm (N4) construction; 16 billion transistors. Some say it's the 3rd generation 5nm construction.
  • 6 compute: 2 performance, 4 efficiency, 5 GPU cores, 16 neural cores
  • New: Display Engine. Handle always on display on the iPhone 14 Pro, high peak brightness.
  • Introduced on the iPhone 14 Pro only

SnapDragon 8 Gen 1/ SnapDragon 8+ Gen. 1

  • 4nm (4LPE) construction
  • 8 compute cores (1 prime + 3 performance + 4 efficiency core), Adreno 730 GPU, Hexagon AI cores
  • Supports ARMv9 instruction set.
  • Spectra cores for Image Signal Processing
  • Internal X65 modem, 5G support, Wi-Fi 6 ready

SnapDragon 8 Gen 2

  • 4nm construction
  • Announced in Nov 2022 with Smartphones fielding in Dec 2022
  • 8 compute cores (1 prime Cortex X3 + 4 performance + 3 efficiency cores), Adreno GPU, Hexagon AI cores. Re-arranged the amount of performance cores to give a higher multi-core performance
  • Legacy 32-bit apps only use the efficiency cores
  • Cognitive ISP for cameras.
  • Hexagon AI cores supports INT4 format
  • Supports LPDDR5X memory
  • Internal X70 modem, 5G supports, Wi-Fi 7 ready, Bluetooth 5.3

Performance over the years


Apple CPU performance is 2-3 generations ahead of Qualcomm. Note how constant the performance delta on each generation.

And the gulf is even bigger in multi-core performance

Graphics performance is where Qualcomm is ahead by 1 generation. The performance delta on each generation seems to grow faster as both Apple and Qualcomm add quicker cores to their graphics pipeline. And remember the TDP is constantly under 8.5W

As you can see from the graphs, there has been a consistent trend. Apple tends to do well in CPU benchmarks while Qualcomm tends to do better in graphic benchmarks. What you didn’t see is how fast the performance gains over the years.

Despite what people think that peak-smartphone is coming, we still haven’t seen a slowdown of performance from either camp. And considering how the form factor and TDP of each chip is the same for years (around 5W to 8.5W), it is astounding how much performance each of them can squeeze from that small power envelope.

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