Irrelevant Hacks

Irrelevant musings of a hack blogger

Apple and ARM – Part 1

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So, Apple finally confirmed that it’s moving to ARM CPUs, something that was predicted for years by analysts. But what does it mean to consumers and professionals? Where does this leave professionals that need to use Windows? Those are some of the questions I’ll try to postulate in this and subsequent posts (Yes! I’ll be more active here!).

Apple’s move to ARM has taken over 10 years of them designing their own A series of ARM chips. Starting with the A4, which was made in conjunction with Samsung, in 2010. And the A6 which included Apple’s fully self designed CPU cores in 2012. They’ve come a long way. But let’s see how they faired in Geekbench 5 scoring (scores available for A7 and later).

ReleaseA Series CPUSingle Core PerformanceImprovementMulti Core PerformanceImprovement
09/2014A8357+28% (A7)668+27% (A7)
10/2014A8X378+5% (A8)1049+57% (A8)
09/2015A9553+55% (A8)1026+53% (A8)
11/2015A9X647+71% (A8X)1195+14% (A8X)
09/2016A10759+37% (A9)1404+37% (A9)
06/2017A10X832+29% (A9X)2270+90% (A9X)
09/2017A11923+22% (A10)2324+66% (A10)
09/2018A121112+20% (A11)2871+24% (A11)
10/2018A12X1113+34% (A10X)4607+103% (A10X)
03/2020A12Z11180% (A12X)46250% (A12X)
09/2019A131327+19% (A12)3390+18% (A12)
Apple A Series CPU GeekBench 5 Benchmarks

As you can see, it’s a steady progression regarding single core CPU speeds. From 2013 to today, we’re looking at a five fold speed increase. Multicore performance is a bit different, due to the different configuration of high speed and efficiency ARM cores in each CPU, however performance regularly increased over the years on that front too. The one outlier is the A12Z, but the main difference between it and the A12X is that Apple added/activated an additional GPU core, and didn’t touch the main CPU cores at all, which explains the lack of speed bump. But let’s see how these CPUs compare to their portable Intel counterparts in the top of the line MacBook Pro models that were sold around the same time as the Apple processor release.

CPU# of CoresSingle CoreMulti Core
i7-4960HQ4 (8)8873290
A7 vs i7-4960HQ (MacBook Pro Retina Late 2013)
CPU# of CoresSingle CoreMulti Core
i7-4980HQ4 (8)9193262
A8 vs i7-4980HQ (MacBook Pro Retina Mid 2014)
CPU# of CoresSingle CoreMulti Core
i7-4980HQ4 (8)9313348
A9 vs i7-4980HQ (MacBook Pro Retina Mid 2015)
CPU# of CoresSingle CoreMulti Core
i7-6920HQ4 (8)8463383
A10 vs i7-6920HQ (MacBook Pro Late 2016)
CPU# of CoresSingle CoreMulti Core
i7-7920HQ4 (8)9183483
A11 vs i7-7920HQ (MacBook Pro Mid 2017)
CPU# of CoresSingle CoreMulti Core
i9-8950HK6 (12)10485083
A12X vs i9-8950HK (MacBook Pro Mid 2018)
CPU# of CoresSingle CoreMulti Core
i9-9980HK8 (16)11126957
A13 vs i9-9980HK (MacBook Pro Late 2019)

If one thing is obvious, is that Apple’s continuous improvements have shown that their CPUs can match Intel’s in performance, at least in single core benchmarks. On MultiCore performance, they’ve gotten very close with the A12X (and A12Z). This is probably the main reasoning behind rumors starting in 2013/2014 of Apple testing ARM based notebooks (which could have actually been iPad Pro prototypes at the time), and picked up speed around 2016.

But the main caveat in this comparison is that these Apple CPUs are used in phones and tablets, and not laptops. Laptops have more active cooling solutions, so the CPUs can run hotter. However, Apple hasn’t released TDP values for their CPUs, but Intel does. We can estimate the latest A series TDP to something along the lines of the CPU in the Samsung S10 and the Microsoft Surface Pro X, which is about between 7 & 9 Watts, so we can round up to 10 Watts for the A12X/Z (just a conservative value, it may be closer to the other CPUs, or lower).

CPUA12X/Zi9-8950HK & i9-9980HK
TDP10W (estimate)45W
TDP Comparison

So, Apple has space to grow with its CPU regarding heat and power consumption. We can’t do any specific estimates for future since Apple doesn’t provide TDP for the iPhone CPU version and iPad version. But it seems reasonable that Apple might fork off the A series CPUs into Laptop and Desktop versions due to different TDP requirements for each.

As such, we can reasonably say, that the Mac Mini enclosed “Developer Transition Kit (ARM)” is a bodge, and NOT fully representative of what we’ll probably end up seeing in production models. We’ve already seen this with the “Developer Transition Kit (intel)” in 2005. That was just a basic Pentium IV motherboard that Apple stuffed into a G5 case.

Anyways, I’ll be talking about the new Developer Transition Kit in the next part of this small series of posts.

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