The iPad's new engine: The A5 chip

Apple's iPad has a brand-new engine purring beneath its aluminum and glass enclosure: its first dual-core chip, the A5.

The iPad 2's A5 chip is sending a strong message to the competition: Apple is moving to dual-core processing power in a completely redesigned tablet but keeping the 10-hour battery life.

Apple's A5 processor supersedes the A4 chip currently used in the iPad and iPhone 4. The A5 effectively doubles the processing power by adding another processor core to the single-core A4.

"We get up to twice as fast on CPU [Central Processing Unit] performance," said Steve Jobs, speaking at the iPad 2 event today in San Francisco .

And Apple is also trumpeting its graphics processing. "We've really gone all out on the graphics performance. Up to nine times faster graphics," Jobs said.

And to placate consumers who may be worried that all that extra performance means worse battery life, Jobs added: "Same low power as A4. We don't want to give up any of that legendary battery life."

Analysts say Jobs is right on the money: the key is balancing battery life and performance. "It's a post-PC era. It's not just about speeds and feeds. It's about the totality. It's about good-enough performance and 10 hour battery life." said Ashok Kumar, an analyst at Rodman & Renshaw.

"In the new design paradigm of smart phones and tablets, computing efficiency trumps raw computing power," Wayne Lam, an analyst at IHS iSuppli, wrote in a research note today. "Designs like the iPad demand highly integrated microprocessors that emphasize graphics performance, lower power consumption, and small space usage."

Steve Jobs discusses the new A5 chip at the iPad 2 event in San Francisco today.
Steve Jobs discusses the new A5 chip at the iPad 2 event in San Francisco today. CNET/CBS Interactive

Apple is not only touting that the iPad 2 will be the first dual-core tablet to ship in volume but also making a lot of noise about the '9X' improvement in graphics processing.
Apple is not only touting that the iPad 2 will be the first dual-core tablet to ship in volume but also making a lot of noise about the '9X' improvement in graphics processing. Apple

But Apple isn't being shy about the boost in performance--and analysts are duly impressed. "Nine times faster graphics is a reasonable marketing number," said Joe Byrne, an analyst at The Linley Group, a chip consulting firm. "For iPad owners, this means games that are a better match for the larger screen size...appear much better. There's enough potential iPad volume to justify [game] developers' extra investment," he said.

All of this is not good news for Motorola, whose Xoom tablet, which began shipping last month, was the first dual-core tablet from a top-tier supplier. "I don't think anybody else has a fighting chance in this market," said Kumar, referring to Apple's dominance.

"I think this is the first dual-core tablet to ship in volume," said Jobs. And he may not be far off the mark, considering Apple's ability to ramp up large volumes very quickly.

The A5 follows a hugely popular A4 chip. "Driven by the soaring sales of products including the iPad and the iPhone 4, Apple's shipments of products based on its A4 microprocessor reached nearly 50 million units in 2010 from virtually zero sales in 2009," IHS iSuppli said.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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