An Exclusive Look Inside Apple’s A13 Bionic Chip

When talking about the previous generation A12 Bionic in an interview, Gwennap points out that while Apple leads the single-CPU race, the others are relatively competitive with them.

“I don’t see them as far ahead,” he says. “I would expect Samsung, Qualcomm, and Huawei will up their game.”

So have they stepped up their game since last year’s A12? Exactly how does the new six-core A13 Bionic stack up against the latest chips from Apple’s three big rivals? Let’s look at the numbers.

Samsung’s newest processor, the Exynos 9825, has eight cores arranged in three clusters: two high-performance custom Mongoose cores running at 2.73 GHz, another two Cortex A75 cores running at 2.4 GHZ, and four efficiency-focused Cortex A55 cores running at 1.9 GHz. There is a Mali GPU and Samsung’s neural processing unit, along with LTE and memory capabilities.

Huawei’s chip, called the Kirin 990 5G, follows a similar tri-cluster, eight-core (also known as octa-core) approach. There are two high performance Cortex A76 cores running at 2.86 GHz, another two A76 two cores running at 2.35 GHz, and four efficiency-focused Cortex A55 cores running at an even slower 1.95 GHz. Rounding out the chip is a 16-core GPU, and a Da Vinci neural engine with three cores. Huawei’s chip contains a whopping 10.3 billion transistors.

Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 855 Plus is very much like the Kirin 990 and Exynos. It uses custom Kryo 485 Gold cores with one powerful cluster clocked at 2.96 GHz, another three Kyro 485 Gold cores running at a clock speed of 2.42 GHz, and four efficiency-focused Kryo 485 Silver cores running at 1.78 GHz. It includes an Adreno GPU and Qualcomm’s Hexagon 690 AI engine.

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Those chips have some faster components and more of them, so you may think those chips perform better than Apple’s. But the reality is that we hardly use the entire capacity of the chips that come in our mobile devices. One or two high-performance cores are enough for most of what we throw at our phones. Apple’s six-core design might seem lagging compared to the eight-core processors from the competitors, but really, the two big processors on its chip easily outperform its rivals’ designs. Apple’s processors consume power more efficiently, and that gives them a distinct advantage over competitors. For instance, Samsung’s Mongoose chips need to be used judiciously, lest they cause the device containing them to overheat. Even the newly designed custom efficiency cores in A13 also best their competitors.

“Although Apple’s cores aren’t the biggest, they continue to lead in mobile performance,” noted Gwennap earlier this year in The Microprocessor Report. And at the time he wrote that, he was talking about the A12 chip. The A13 performs about 20 percent better.

So the takeaway here is that specs and benchmarks don’t take into account Apple’s real advantages—tight integration into the device, and the company’s development strategy for squeezing more runtime out of its batteries while boosting the performance of key apps.

Power Play

So, how does a phone company illustrate these technical gains in a way that resonates with customers? The chip-speak doesn’t matter. What matters is having the best camera, the fastest phone, and—oh yes—the biggest battery. The longer we get to use Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube, the more willing we’ll be to spend money on these premium phones. Apple’s new iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max check the battery box. The phones will enjoy an additional four and five hours of battery life, respectively. How do they do that?

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The answer to that question clearly illustrates the inherent advantage of Apple owning the whole stack. To learn about how that vertical integration manifests itself in a chip like the A13 Bionic, I sat down with Schiller and Anand Shimpi, who in a past life was an influential semiconductor- and systems-focused journalist who founded the website AnandTech. Shimpi is now part of Apple’s Platform Architecture team.

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