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A16 chip design means it’s really an A15 +, argues Macworld

One of the differences between the base and Pro model iPhone 14 this year is that only the latter get the latest A16 chip. But a new piece today argues that this is a smaller difference than Apple might like to suggest.

A comparison of the two chip designs concludes that the differences are far more limited than is normally the case for Apple’s annual iPhone chip upgrade…

Background

The iPhone 14 is the first time that Apple has used the A-series chip as a differentiating factor between the standard and Pro models. The iPhone 14 Pro and Pro Max get the new A16 chip, while the iPhone 14 and Plus get the A15 chip from last year’s models.

Apple is believed to have made the decision as part of a strategy to widen the gap between base and Pro models, and we’re expecting it to repeat the approach in next year’s iPhone 15 line-up.

A16 chip is really an A15 +

Macworld’s Jason Cross dived into the design of the A16 chip to make his argument that it’s mostly the same as the A15.

We’ve noted before that Apple likes to call the A16 chip a 4nm one, while TSMC – who makes the chip – refers to it as an enhanced 5nm process. Cross opens with this same point.

The chip is manufactured on a new “4 nanometer” process from TSMC, according to Apple, making it the first such processor in a smartphone. It’s worth noting, however, that TSMC’s “N4” process is not a 4nm process in the truest sense, with TSMC itself even calling it “an enhanced version of N5 technology.” While it’s a more advanced process than earlier A series processors, it is not a real next-generation silicon manufacturing process.

The headline numbers are the same as the A15: two high-performance cores, four efficiency cores, five GPU cores, and 16 Neural Engine cores. The transistor count has increased, but only from 15 billion to 16 billion – a much smaller jump than usual.

Cross suggests that both CPU and Neural Engine appear to have either identical or nearly identical architecture to the A15, and that the performance improvements likely result only from Apple running the same chips at a higher clock speed. The biggest difference is the switch from LPDDR4x to LPDDR5 memory, but the otherwise modest differences are, he says, reflected in the benchmarks.

Given that the CPU architecture hasn’t changed much, but just runs at a clock speed up to 7 percent higher (and with more memory bandwidth available), we should expect most CPU benchmarks to show performance gains of 10 percent or less.

A quick look at Geekbench 5 numbers shows us that, indeed, maximum single-core CPU performance appears to have gone up by around 8-10 percent over the A15. Multi-core performance fares a little better, but it’s likely that those tests are more easily able to overwhelm the chip’s caches and would therefore get some benefit from the increased memory bandwidth.

GPU performance improvements of 7% to 19% are also in line with expectations if the architecture is unchanged, with just a boost to clock speed. The higher-end increases are in line with the 50% memory bandwidth boost afforded by the LPDDR5 memory.

It’s the fact that the A16 chip is only an incremental improvement on the A15 which explains the base model iPhone 14 getting “features like Action Mode, Photonic Engine, and 4K Cinematic mode.”

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