Analysts: iPad 4's graphics upgrade packs a punch

Chip analysts say the fourth-generation iPad is far from being an incremental upgrade, thanks to a brand-new graphics engine that's a serious step up in horsepower.

The A6X chip inside the iPad 4.
The A6X chip inside the iPad 4. Chipworks

At its silicon core, the fourth-generation iPad is hardly an incremental upgrade, according to chip analysts.

The new iPad's A6X chip packs a brand-new graphics engine that boasts a serious step up in horsepower from the third-generation iPad's A5X.

"Nothing's incremental about this. The A6X is one massive processing machine," Jim Morrison, a product manager at Chipworks, which does reverse engineering and patent-infringement analysis of semiconductors and electronic systems, told CNET.

Chipworks posted an analysis of the A6X's circuit layout today.

Apple's newest chip is a full 30 percent larger than the A6 used in the iPhone 5, according to Chipworks. And most of that extra chip real estate has been allocated to graphics silicon. Chipworks wrote in its posted analysis:

The A6X uses the identical [central processing unit of] the A6...Much of the extra area has gone to the GPU cores...each of these GPU cores is much larger...The overall area occupied by the A6X [graphics processing unit] cores is more than double that of the A6.

The graphics processing unit, or GPU, is a quad-core PowerVR SGX 554MP4 from Imagination, according to an analysis posted today by Anandtech.

That SGX 554MP4 has raw performance of 76.8 GFLOPS, compared with the 38.4 GFLOPS rating for the quad-core Imagination chip in the third-generation iPad, according to Anandtech.

So how does this translate to better performance over the third-generation iPad, you ask?

Well, at the moment, a lot of this is potential horsepower waiting to be tapped by a new game or app that's been optimized for the A6X's graphics.

But benchmarks may provide some guidance.

In some tests, Anandtech is seeing "about 2x the performance of the previous generation iPad," adding that "it looks like the A6X is the [chip] that the iPad needed to really deliver good gaming performance at its native resolution."

And CNET's Scott Stein had this to say about the rare game that does take advantage of the A6X's extra oomph:

Theoretically, games should run faster and smoother on the Retina Display. Indeed, the ones I tested did. N.O.V.A. 3, a first-person shooter from Gameloft that's often prone to choppiness in heavy action, was silky smooth. Other games seemed equally fast-loading and zippy.
The iPad 4's new Lightning connector. The only discernable cosmetic difference from the iPad 3.
The iPad 4's new Lightning connector. The only discernable cosmetic difference from the iPad 3. CNET
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