Apple debuts three custom chips, audio goes wireless

September 08, 2016 // By Rick Merritt
Apple’s newly announced products pack at least three new chips including its first wireless SoC to date, showing the company’s increasing silicon prowess.

The company’s largest and most complex effort remains the iPhone application processor. The 64-bit A10 Fusion in the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus packs 3.3 billion transistors.

The SoC adopts ARM’s Big.little approach, using two high performance cores running 40% faster and two high efficiency cores at one-fifth the power consumption of the A9 SoC in the iPhone 6. It also sports a six-core GPU that’s 50% faster than graphics in the A9.

“It’s the most powerful chip in a smartphone,” said Apple Vice President of marketing Phil Schiller, although companies including Mediatek and Samsung are shipping apps processors with eight or more cores.

Apple provided few details on its chip-level work. It left gaping holes about whether all the A10 cores were custom or some were sourced from ARM or others, what process the chips were made in and what data rates they hit. The company was most forthcoming about its success in greater silicon efficiency. As a result the iPhone7 on average delivers as much as two hours longer battery life than the iPhone 6, although on the dual-camera iPhone 7 Plus the extra life is trimmed to one hour.

Apple broke out battery life figures by workloads. It reported for example that the iPhone 7 delivers 14 hours of Web browsing and 12 hours of LTE use on a charge.

The biggest surprise of the event came from the lowly earbud. Apple’s new wireless AirPods and three new wireless Beats headphones include a custom chip called the W1. The company gave no details about just which functions the chip controls but ostensibly they include audio playback and wireless reception.

Apple's new AirPods use a custom W1, the company's first wireless chip.

Apple’s Schiller and the company’s materials did not mention the term Bluetooth. One source suggested the products use near field magnetic induction, a mature technology that has been used in hearing aids for the past decade” and currently available in chips from NXP Semiconductors, at least to synchronize the two devices.

Schiller said AirPods do not require a device pairing process typical of Bluetooth. A one-step process lets them pick up audio from either an iPhone or Apple Watch which presumably would at least require some variant of a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi transmission.