Flashback: how the Apple M1 evolved out of Apple’s iPad chipsets

Scarlette Lennon19 June 2022Last Update : 2 weeks ago
Flashback: how the Apple M1 evolved out of Apple’s iPad chipsets

The first custom Apple chipset, the Apple A4, was launched in 2010 with the original iPad and was also shown in the iPhone 4 a few months later. The A4 was manufactured by Samsung and used an improved Cortex-A8 CPU core called the “Hummingbird”.

Hummingbird was developed jointly by Samsung and Intrinsity and was announced in 2009 as “the world’s faster ARM Cortex-A8 processor”. Several adjustments had to be made for the core to reach its 1GHz target. Apple bought Intrinsity a few months after it unveiled the iPad. And a few years before, it had bought PA Semi.

Following these key acquisitions, Apple began working on internal chipset designs for use in its portable products. Today’s story begins in 2012, when we will focus on the improved X-Series of chips, which are predecessors to the groundbreaking Apple M1. The AX chips are mainly used in iPads, but they also occasionally appeared in Apple TVs.

The second generation of the iPad introduced the Apple A5 to the world in 2011. It still used off-the-shelf components, Cortex-A9 CPU cores from ARM and PowerVR SGX543 GPU cores from Imagination. The third generation of the iPad arrived a year later with an improved version of the chip, called the Apple A5X, which made the ball roll.

The A5X doubled the GPU cores (from MP2 to MP4) and also included a new quad-channel memory controller, which offered data transfer speeds of up to 12.8 GB / s, roughly tripling the bandwidth of the A5.

Future AX chipsets would follow the same game plan – use the same hardware, just more of it. Tablets are larger than phones, which means they have larger batteries and more surface area to dissipate heat so they could handle the more powerful chipsets.

Apple A6 is known for introducing the first custom CPU core designed internally by Apple, called “Swift”. The GPU still came from Imagination. The A6X was a bit disappointing as it only added an extra GPU core.

A few years later, the Apple A8X, the first in the series, came to expand the CPU hardware as well as the GPU. It added an extra Typhoon kernel, a total of three, while the GPU kernel count doubled to eight. The A9X went back to having the same CPU as the regular A9, but that was the last time – from then on, all AX chipsets would have larger CPUs

Flashback: how the Apple M1 evolved out of Apple's iPad chipset

2016’s Apple A10 chipset was the first from the company to adopt a large. SMALL architecture. It had two large Hurricane nuclei along with two small Zephyr nuclei. A year later, the A10X came with three of each, while doubling the number of GPU cores.

Small cores are good for efficiency, but having more than a few does not add much performance. Therefore, the 2018 Apple A12X chipset only doubled the large number of CPU cores (to four), while using the same number of small cores (also four). The GPU was upgraded to a 7-core design, an 8-core version would arrive in 2020 as the Apple A12Z.

Let’s jump to 2020 – after years of using Intel processors, Apple said goodbye to them and announced the first batch of Apple M1-powered Macs. This also marked a transition away from x86 and towards ARM, the same ARM instruction set that powered their iPhones and iPads.

And it’s no coincidence, the Apple M1 used slightly modified versions of the components of the A14 (the chip inside the iPhone 12 and 4th gen iPad Air) – the large Firestorm cores and the small Icestorm cores, also the same GPU architecture.

Flashback: how the Apple M1 evolved out of Apple's iPad chipset

But as we have already seen, the trick to making the chipset faster is to add more kernels. The M1 doubled the large CPU cores and doubled the GPU (though it offered chips with 7-core GPUs as a cost-saving measure). As with the 12X, the small CPU cores were left untouched. It helped that Apple’s designs were already at the forefront in terms of both performance and efficiency (TSMC deserves some credit for that), so the M1 handled desktop tasks with ease, even when passively cooled.

The Apple M2 chipset, which was announced earlier this month, follows the same pattern, although this time it is based on the A15 chipset (iPhone 13). M1 had Pro, Max and Ultra variants, so will M2 for sure.

These just use different multipliers, for example the M1 Pro has 50% or 100% more large CPU cores than the base M1 and twice as many GPU cores. The Pro cut the small kernels in half, but as already mentioned, only a few of them are needed. Max uses the same CPU formula, but offers 3 to 4 times as many GPU cores as base M1. Ultra doubles the CPU and GPU resources (it is actually built of two Pro chips).

2012/2012 Apple A5 A5X
Large CPU cores 2x Cortex-A9 2x Cortex-A9
Small CPU cores
2012 Apple A6 A6X
Large CPU cores 2x Swift 2x Swift
Small CPU cores
2014 Apple A8 Apple A8X
Large CPU cores 2x Typhoon 3x Typhoon
Small CPU cores
GPU 6XT 4-core 6XT 8-core
2015 Apple A9 Apple A9X
Large CPU cores 2x Twister 2x Twister
Small CPU cores
GPU 7XT 6-core 7XT 12-core
2016/2017 Apple A10 Apple A10X
Large CPU cores 2x hurricane 3x hurricane
Small CPU cores 2x Zephyr 3x Zephyr
GPU 7XT GT 6-core 12-core
2018/2020 Apple A12 Apple A12X / A12Z
Large CPU cores 2x Vortex 4x Vortex
Small CPU cores 4x Storm 4x Storm
GPU G11P 4-core 7/8 core
2020 Apple A14 Apple M1
Large CPU cores 2x Firestorm 4x Firestorm
Small CPU cores 4x ice storm 4x ice storm
GPU Apple 4-core Apple 7/8 core
2021/2022 Apple A15 Apple M2
Large CPU cores 2 x avalanche 4x avalanche
Small CPU cores 4x blizzard 4x blizzard
GPU 4-core 8/10 core
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