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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  • Speedfriend - Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - link

    Intel 7nm is on track
  • rpg1966 - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    Interesting, thanks. I wonder how that article would read if written today, with presumably a lot of advances made since then.

    Still, Apple has to spend the money sooner or later, for whatever the next iPhone needs. In these low-interest-rate times, delaying a spend doesn't really save you much.
  • brucethemoose - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    The tone on 3nm, aka "oh my God this is going to be *expensive*" hasn't changed much since then:

    But yeah, during TSMC's own info dumps, "large customer" is almost a synonym for "Apple".
  • Deicidium369 - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    Apple all but bankrolled the TSMC 10nm class "7nm"...
  • Samus - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    We are in an era where hoarding money is a tactically good business move. Apple is in one of the best financial positions of any company in the world because they are not locked into wining and dining their investors.
  • damianrobertjones - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    Man... (or woman/other) the price of iPads is insane. Even the second hand eBay prices are absolutely crazy (For the 3rd Gen Pro). If anything, I feel that the prices are being kept artifically high by eBay's fake bidding system. Come on, you must have seen it by now!? The amount of accounts with under 10 feedback or 0 feedback.

    You'd also think that the (eBay) price, for a 3rd gen pro, would fall shortly after the next gen arrives. Nope, not here in the U.K.
  • brucethemoose - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    Direct promotions aside, I haven't seen a decent price for a hot item on eBay in years. The sellers are all scalpers, and I have no idea who's buying their stuff.
  • playtech1 - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    This makes me wonder if an A14X model is going to be a bit delayed, hence the need for this (very) light refresh to tide over the range until 2021.
  • GC2:CS - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    OK but what about the improved thermals, and DVFS tuning ? What about potentially higher efficiency from better binning node after two years ?

    Any word on the packaging technique Apple employs for the RAM ?

    Regarding the die size... that thing is quite small, just a tad larger than 125mm A10 with 3x number of transistors. Maybe they want to bring down the iPad Pro line in price. So a mature and relativelly cheap chip would scale down better over the years. I can not see anybody complaining having just A12X in three years time. It would still be competitive with many upcoming notebooks.

    We will see about next gen.
  • Sahrin - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    It'd be interesting to know exactly when this decision was made. Presumably since they're the same silicon they're pin-compatible, so it could be the 14X was just straight up yanked and the decision made to go ahead with the old internals just a few weeks before it was to enter production (~90 days before launch maybe?).

    I'm wondering if it's because of iPad sales, or something else.

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