Last month Apple introduced its latest generation of iPad Pro tablets, and much to the surprise of many, the new iDevices didn’t come with a high-end variant of Apple’s newest A13 SoC. Instead, the iPads used an SoC that Apple was calling the A12Z, clearly indicating that it was based on the same Vortex/Tempest architecture as the earlier A12X, which was used in the 2018 iPad Pros. The unusual move from Apple left us suspecting that the A12Z may not have even been a new chip, but rather a new bin of the A12X, and today we finally have confirmation of that theory thanks to TechInsights.

In a brief tweet, the technical analysis and reverse engineering firm published a note announcing their findings, along with side-by-side die shots comparing A12Z and A12X. In short, the two chips are seemingly identical, with every last functional block in exactly the same place and the same size on A12Z as it was A12X.

While TechInsights’ die shot analysis doesn’t suss out some finer details such as chip steppings – whether A12Z is even on a newer stepping, or if it’s the same stepping as the A12X that Apple was shipping in 2018 for the IPad Pro launch – it’s clear that in terms of silicon, A12Z doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

Instead, the notable changes between the two chips is in their binning/configuration: whereas the A12X only ever shipped with 7 of its GPU clusters enabled, A12Z ships with all 8 enabled. And while a small change in the grand picture of things, it makes sense for Apple to finally enable the 8th cluster for a bit more performance. A12X is produced on TSMC’s 7nm line, and when it was released in 2018, it was one of the biggest 7nm chips being churned out. So Apple should be enjoying much better yields 18 months later, reducing the need to bin to a lower spec to salvage chips.

Apple SoC Comparison
  A12Z A12X A13 A12
CPU 4x Apple Vortex
4x Apple Tempest
4x Apple Vortex
4x Apple Tempest
2x Apple Lightning
4x Apple Thunder
2x Apple Vortex
4x Apple Tempest
GPU 8-cluster, A12-gen 7-cluster, A12-gen
(+ 1 disabled)
4-cluster, A13-gen 4-cluster, A12-gen
Memory Bus 128-bit LPDDR4X 128-bit LPDDR4X 64-bit LPDDR4X 64-bit LPDDR4X
Manufacturing Process TSMC 7nm (N7) TSMC 7nm (N7) TSMC 7nm (N7P) TSMC 7nm (N7)

As for why Apple would opt to re-use A12X for their 2020 tablets instead of commissioning an A13X, while we can only speculate, it almost certainly comes down to economics, as the tablet market is quite different from the smartphone market. Apple is virtually unchallenged as far as high-performance Arm tablets go, and even then, the number of iPads they sell has always been a drop in the bucket compared to the number of iPhones they sell. So there are fewer devices to amortize the costs of chip development against, and all the while chip development costs are continuing to rise with each new generation of photolithography technology. In short, at some point it has to stop making sense to create new chip designs on a yearly basis for mid-volume products, and Apple may very well have finally hit that mark with their tablet SoCs.

Source: TechInsights

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  • s.yu - Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - link

    Interestingly I have the opposite experience, Windows tablet mode is horrible so I just use regular mode with a stylus, and with little magnification. Even then there are strange glitches like BT refusing to connect automatically to a paired speaker which doesn't appear on my Android phone nor with other BT devices like the mouse and keyboard.
  • khanikun - Thursday, April 16, 2020 - link

    I had that weird BT glitch too, but it only affected my Sony SRS-X11. Literally my other BT speakers, Sony SRS-XB41, no problems. Creative Roar, no problem. Nor any of my BT headphones had issues. That's for my Surface Book 2. My old Surface Pro 3, never had ay issues though.
  • michael2k - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    Yet Apple’s iPhones keep pushing the performance envelope despite being a couple years ahead of the competition for the past decade now.

    I think it’s okay that they recycle, reuse, and reduce too.
  • s.yu - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    I agree, especially in the tablet segment where the iPP is essentially unique. iPhones are arguably falling behind so I don't think they could afford to sit on their behinds there.
  • khanikun - Thursday, April 16, 2020 - link

    Not like there's much competition in the media consumption tablet market. Everyone just makes ultra thin laptops or convertibles using Windows. Few bother making Android tablets at all, while those that do really don't bother making decent Android tablets. They're usually 1-2 generations behind on the processors and don't bother ever updating Android on the things.
  • Santoval - Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - link

    Assuming clock speeds of both the CPU and GPU block are identical I don't think so. Better yields, a tighter binning and presumably a more mature stepping after 18 months of the release of the original also suggest that the TDP got (slightly) lower.
    So if the extra active GPU core is the sole difference its additional TDP load should be absorbed while retaining the same TDP. This is almost certainly doable, since Apple moved from 15 cores (CPU + GPU) to 16 cores in total.
  • eek2121 - Monday, April 13, 2020 - link

    Better multitasking performance? The A12X appears to be much better at multitasking.
  • nicolaim - Monday, April 13, 2020 - link

    "So there are fewer devices to aromatize the costs of chip development against, [...]."

    Something about this sentence smells wrong to me...
  • mrvco - Monday, April 13, 2020 - link

    You need to waft more and it will come to you.
  • kefkiroth - Monday, April 13, 2020 - link

    There must be a huge bump in refurb 2018 iPad Pro orders these days. Most people won't use the LIDAR capabilities, and the A12X is for most purposes almost identical to the A12Z. The time the 2018 models gets slow should be around the time the 2020 models feel slow. I recently picked one up after holding out with an old Nexus 9, and in some respects, it feels snappier than my 11 Pro.

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