The most exciting part of Apple’s iPad, for me at least, is the A4 processor inside. It’s “custom”, but what does that really mean? The mobile industry, like the PC industry, takes the best components from here, there, everywhere, slaps them together and then sells it to you. Unlike the PC industry however, the mobile industry slaps together licensed intellectual property of system cores and then puts all those cores on a single custom chip, hence the name “system on a chip”. Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Marvell, Freescale, they all do this, and so does P.A. Semi, which is why Apple purchased them in April 2008.
Designing a system on a chip isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do, the expertise is hard to find, so it didn’t come as a shock to me when I read in The New York Times that several P.A. Semi engineers left after the Apple acquisition and created their own startup called “Agnilux“. The name is derived from agni – Sanskrit for fire and lux – Latin for light. Mark Hayter, who was the Vice President of Hardware and a System Architect at P.A. Semi from July 2003 to June 2008, and a Hardware Architect and Senior Engineering Manager at Broadcom from December 2000 to May 2003, and a member of the research staff at D.E.C. from January 1994 to January 1999, is the Chief Operating Officer and a System Architect at Agnilux. In short, he is a rock star and he left Apple to do his own thing. That’s interesting it it of itself.
“From what we have seen so far, Apple’s product seems to stack up evenly with the competition” — Dean McCarron, Chip Analyst at Mercury Research. I came to a similar conclusion when I looked at the iPad versus the Lenovo Skylight. The Skylight uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, clocked at 1 GHz, and has a 10 inch screen, keyboard, built in 3G, and 4 GB more storage than the base model iPad, yet it costs the same price. Both products are due to hit the market in March/April.
One more thing …
Building a system on chip, like I said earlier, isn’t the easiest thing to do. It takes around 2 years to design, test, and then produce a chip, so the A4 you’re seeing come out in the iPad this Spring was a project that began as soon as P.A. Semi people got their Apple employee badges printed. A lot has been said about the A4 is and isn’t, and I frankly don’t believe any of it. I’m waiting for the iPad to come out, be torn apart, and for one of my favorite chip research group, Prismark, to publish their results. They charge a lot for their research, so I’ll probably have to get it from a friend of a friend if you know what I mean.