Apple’s iPad Air tablets will get a major performance boost with the company’s new A14 Bionic processor, a chip that likely previews what’s to come with Apple’s upcoming Macs. Compared with last year’s midrange iPad Air models, the new tablets are 40% faster at ordinary processing tasks and 30% faster at graphics, Apple said at an online launch event Tuesday.
The performance is important. Apple designs its own chips but previously used its A-series models only in iPhones and iPads. This year, it’ll begin using a new A-series chip in its Macs — personal computers that have heftier performance demands but also more battery power than a phone or tablet.
The six-core A14 Bionic processor is the first to be built with a 5-nanometer manufacturing process, a miniaturization development that lets Apple cram in more circuitry than with the earlier 7nm process. More circuitry means more computing capabilities, including the doubled performance on artificial intelligence work in the new chip. The circuitry in the A14 Bionic consists of a whopping 11.8 billion transistors.
“We’ll be the first in the industry to use the breakthrough 5nm process technology,” said Tim Millet, Apple’s vice president of platform architecture.
Apple moving to 5nm chip manufacturing
Apple has relied on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. to build the processors. TSMC has moved to 5nm manufacturing, but during the event, Apple didn’t credit TSMC for building its new chip.
Others did, though. “This is the first opportunity we get to look at the impact of TSMC’s 5nm process,” said Real World Technologies analyst David Kanter. He’s keen to see how much of the performance improvements come from TSMC’s newer technology and how much comes from Apple’s chip architecture.
iPad sales have slowed, but the tablet remains a significant part of Apple’s product line, in particular as schools look for kid-friendly computing hardware during home schooling forced by the coronavirus pandemic. And the iPad Air is a significant update.
In addition to the higher speed, the new models get the iPad Pro’s USB-C port, a faster and more versatile option than the earlier Lightning ports used on earlier iPads and iPhones. USB-C charging lets you use the same cable, power adapters and portable batteries to charge the phones, laptops, tablets, cameras and other devices, like Nintendo Switch game consoles.
The new iPad Air also gets slimmer bezels, dumping the front-facing home button and moving Touch ID to a button atop the iPad.
Hello, Apple silicon
Apple calls its chips “Apple silicon,” but they’re not entirely of the company’s own creation. Apple licenses the chip instruction set — the collection of commands that software uses to tell the chip what to do — from Arm. Arm licenses that instruction set along with full-fledged chip designs to companies like Apple, Samsung and Qualcomm, and Arm-based chips are used in all smartphones today.
Apple announced in June that it would release its first Arm-based Macs later in 2020. The company has used Intel chips in Macs since 2006.
The Apple-designed Mac processors will arrive just as Intel finally produces Tiger Lake, its first laptop chip in three years with a respectable performance increase, said Linley Group analyst Linley Gwennap. But for Apple, speed isn’t the only factor. Using its own chip lets it better chart its own course, for example by beefing up AI circuitry on the chip or focusing on low power usage for better battery life.
“It’s a control issue for Apple,” Gwennap said.