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Apple's Custom Mobile Chip Designs Gradually Expanding to Include Graphics Hardware

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Apr 12, 2001
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After years of recruiting graphics architects, Apple has gradually shifted from licensing PowerVR graphics to designing its own custom GPUs for iPhones, according to David Kanter at Real World Technologies.

The new graphics processor is said to have first shipped with the A8 chip in the iPhone 6, with successive versions built into in the A9 and A10 Fusion chips powering the iPhone 6s and iPhone 7 lineups respectively.


For context, Kanter said a modern GPU has three major components that work together in harmony to render graphics:
The first is the fixed-function graphics hardware, which is responsible for tasks like processing API commands, triangle rasterization, and raster output. The second is the shader core, which is the heart of the GPU and executes programmable shaders (e.g., vertex, geometry, pixel, and compute shaders). Last, the graphics driver is the software that runs on the CPU and ties everything together, coordinating the activities of the GPU. The driver transforms graphics applications written in the Metal or OpenGL ES APIs into a series of commands for the fixed-function hardware and programmable shaders that execute on the shader cores.
Apple previously relied on PowerVR chipmaker Imagination Technologies to supply fixed-function graphics hardware, shader cores, and drivers for older-generation iPhones, but Kanter said Apple has since replaced the programmable shader cores with its own more efficient and higher performance design, and developed its own driver and compiler to emit code for its architecture.

While Apple's GPU architecture has never been publicly documented, Kanter contrasted information from WWDC 2016 sessions and frameworks against basic PowerVR compiler and optimization manuals, concluding that it is clear that the shader core in Apple's GPU is architecturally very different from the PowerVR line.

Apple's custom GPUs still appear to use some of the PowerVR fixed-function graphics hardware, but it is clear the company's dependance on Imagination Technologies has decreased significantly in recent years. Kanter speculates that if Imagination Technologies were acquired, or fell behind from a technical standpoint, Apple could simply design its own fixed-function hardware.


Apple was actually rumored to acquire Imagination Technologies earlier this year, but later said it did not plan to make an offer on the England-based company at the time. Nevertheless, in recent months, Apple has recruited at least two dozen employees from the chipmaker, including former COO John Metcalfe, and those graphics engineers may have played a role in developing Apple's custom GPUs.

Kanter said Apple has in fact assembled a GPU design team and a graphics driver team that together implemented a large portion of the custom GPUs in the A8, A9, and A10 Fusion chips. In addition to former PowerVR engineers, this team likely includes recent hires from AMD, Google, Intel, and Nvidia.

The transition towards custom GPUs has is said to have resulted in several strategic advantages for Apple beyond increased performance and efficiency, including tighter ecosystem control, better time-to-market and scheduling, reducing its reliance on its suppliers, and reducing bugs without its competitors benefiting.

Full-Length Article: Look Inside Apple's Custom GPU for the iPhone

Article Link: Apple's Custom Mobile Chip Designs Gradually Expanding to Include Graphics Hardware
 

djgamble

macrumors 6502a
Oct 25, 2006
874
363
However, Macbook Pros, iMacs and Mac Minis all have rubbish integrated GPUs that can't do anything. Your only way to handle most games properly on a Mac is to get a Mac Pro (which is too expensive for most to justify purchasing).
 
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holmesf

macrumors 6502a
Sep 30, 2001
527
24
I think Apple's chip design will become a more critical differentiator vs. Google/Android and Microsoft/Windows as those two companies push more aggressively into building their own phones and computers and market an integrated hardware/software experience.

This report contradicts reports from Anandtech that Apple used PowerVR designs for A8 and A9 chips. Anandtech is the best source for in-depth information on Apple's A system architectures, so it's pretty surprising if they were wrong. If true, Apple's move would not be surprising. What would be surprising is that it took people so long to notice.

Anandtech said:
A8’s GPU: Imagination Technologies’ PowerVR GX6450
 
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Markoth

macrumors 6502
Oct 1, 2015
490
1,396
Behind You
However, Macbook Pros, iMacs and Mac Minis all have rubbish integrated GPUs that can't do anything. Your only way to handle most games properly on a Mac is to get a Mac Pro (which is too expensive for most to justify purchasing).
Buying a Mac Pro for gaming is stupid. Nobody who knows what they're buying does that. There is no Mac suitable for games. The Mac Pro is designed for professionals, who benefit from computers which can handle high parallelism. Games do not qualify.
 
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djcerla

macrumors 68000
Apr 23, 2015
1,945
8,806
Italy
In related news, there's a performance comparison video of Pixel vs iPhone. It's a bloodbath.

Those ridicolous waiting times compound in minutes, hours, days of your life lost staring at a progress bar.
 
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decafjava

macrumors 68040
Feb 7, 2011
3,578
3,314
Geneva
In related news, there's a performance comparison video of Pixel vs iPhone. It's a bloodbath.

Those ridicolous waiting times compound in minutes, hours, days of your life lost staring at a progress bar.
For who? Do you have a link?
 
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Omega Mac

macrumors 6502
Aug 16, 2013
473
307
In related news, there's a performance comparison video of Pixel vs iPhone. It's a bloodbath.

Those ridicolous waiting times compound in minutes, hours, days of your life lost staring at a progress bar.

Wow, watched this video here,

I don't play games on my iPhone 6s but in that video they load up almost instantly compared to the pixel and this time the resolution of the devices is on par. (A previous criticism made against historic comparison videos.) The other tests are often on par or so close going to either device but the game loading speed is mind blowingly fast... Apple console ahoy???

Beyond impressive... maybe Apples plan is to storm the mobile games market were it has historically lost in the PC gaming market.
 
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satchmo

macrumors 68040
Aug 6, 2008
3,243
3,218
Canada
However, Macbook Pros, iMacs and Mac Minis all have rubbish integrated GPUs that can't do anything. Your only way to handle most games properly on a Mac is to get a Mac Pro (which is too expensive for most to justify purchasing).

Well, it's not quite that bad.

But I do hope tomorrow's MBP's give us a dGPU option for both the 13" and 15" models. Heck, even MS has it in their Surface Book announced today.
 
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NamE_O

macrumors member
Feb 1, 2016
48
33
Hawaii, United States
Apple is doing an excellent job with CPU&GPU for iDevices. But is it time for Apple to reduce dependence on Intel for Mac yet? We all know Apple's A10 Fusion chip is about as good, if not better, as Intel's M series chips.
 
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holmesf

macrumors 6502a
Sep 30, 2001
527
24
Apple is doing an excellent job with CPU&GPU for iDevices. But is it time for Apple to reduce dependence on Intel for Mac yet? We all know Apple's A10 Fusion chip is about as good, if not better, as Intel's M series chips.

For iOS Apple has a technology called Bitcode that allows them to optimize apps for different CPU architectures after they have been submitted to the store. If Apple brought that technology to Mac it could allow them to have a large number of apps in the Mac App Store ready on day 1 for a new CPU architecture (whether that's ARM or something else). The fact that they have not yet done this leads me to believe that they don't have any immediate plans for non-Intel Macs.
 
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aeshaettr_

macrumors member
Oct 20, 2016
35
42
London
I have no doubt that Apple will eventually build their own silicon for the mac line. The main problem they need to solve is software compatibility. Still, their engineers seem to know what their are doing. Kudos
 
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