Every year, Apple introduces a new A-series system-on-chip to pair with the latest iPhones. This year the company has taken a completely new path. The new A16 processor is reserved only for the “Pro” model iPhones, while the standard iPhone 14 models get the same A15 we introduced last year (the 5-core GPU version found in the iPhone 13 Pro). models).
This year’s and last year’s split isn’t the only unique thing. The A16 is, more than usual, a relatively small evolution compared to the previous SoC. There are certainly a few changes, but the average user probably won’t notice them. The differences between A15 and A16 seem relatively mild compared to Apple’s typical annual cadence.
Earlier this year I made some predictions about the A16 that were guided by assumptions that certainly didn’t all come true. While a few things were true, the performance increase in the A16 is about half of what I’d predicted, and there are fewer major technological improvements to be seen. Here’s what’s new in the A16 and what you can expect from Apple’s first “Pro-only” A-series chip.
What has changed from A15 Bionic
At first glance, the A16 resembles the A15 architecturally. There are two high-performance CPU cores and four high-efficiency cores, five GPU cores, and 16 Neural Engine cores to run machine learning and AI algorithms. Just like the A15.
The chip is manufactured using a new “4 nanometer” process from TSMC, according to Apple, making it the first such processor in a smartphone. However, it’s worth noting that TSMC’s “N4” process is not a 4nm process in the truest sense of the word, with TSMC even calling it “an improved version of N5 technology” itself. While it’s a more advanced process than previous A-series processors, it’s not a true next-generation silicon manufacturing process; you will have to wait for the 3nm process for something like that next year.
Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry
The number of transistors is up a few percent to 16 billion (from 15 billion), and it’s likely that most of that increased budget will be spent on the new display engine (which manages the iPhone 14 Pro’s display up to 1 Hz in always-on display mode and can run up to 2,000 nits in bright sunlight), memory controller and image signal processor.
As for the more general parts of the processor, they seem to have changed very little. The powerful CPU cores are codenamed “Everest” and can clock up to 3.46 GHz, a boost of about 7% from the A15’s maximum of 3.24 GHz for its “Avalanche” cores. The highly efficient cores are codenamed “Sawtooth” and are clocked up to 2.02GHz, which is nearly the same speed as the 2.01GHz of the A15’s 2.01GHz “Blizzard” cores. While these cores are renamed, the architectural changes seem minor at best, as they deliver no performance beyond the expected improvement in clock speed increase.
The Neural Engine is still 16 cores, just like in the A15. Apple says it performs up to 17 trillion operations per second, which is about an 8% increase over the A15’s 15.8 trillion. I think it’s probably the same design, just clocked a little higher.
Perhaps the most significant change is the move to LPDDR5 memory, which should provide 50 percent more memory bandwidth than the LPDDR4x memory in the A15. Apple made the move to LPDDR5 in the M1 processor line (on the M1 Pro, Max and Ultra), which is based on the A14 chip architecture – the only real surprise here is that the company has waited so long to do it in their iPhone-bound chips. There can be some very specific circumstances where a task is completely limited by memory bandwidth on the A15, in which case the A16 should perform a lot better.
So at first glance we have what appears to be essentially an A15 clocking higher, with a new display engine and perhaps an image signal processor. We’ve read reports that there are new security measures in the processor’s ROM; not surprising, given how hard Apple works on both the hardware and software sides to make their devices hard to hack.
Since the CPU architecture hasn’t changed much, just running at a clock speed of 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 the Geekbench 5 numbers tells us that the maximum single-core CPU performance has indeed increased by about 8-10 percent over the A15. Multi-core performance does slightly better, but it’s likely that those tests could overwhelm the chip’s caches more easily and therefore would take some advantage of the increased memory bandwidth.
The A16 Bionic has five GPU cores, just like the more expensive A15, and I don’t believe there have been any architectural changes. But high-end 3D graphics are often very demanding on memory bandwidth, and I would expect the move to LPDDR5 memory to have a significant impact here. I have no real insight into GPU clock speeds, but it would be reasonable to expect the cores to clock about 7 percent higher, just like the powerful CPU cores.
Looking at one of the most strenuous benchmarks for 3D graphics, 3DMark Wild Life, performance ranges from about 7 percent faster in simpler modes to about 19 percent in the “Wild Life Extreme Unlimited” test. That’s a good improvement, and in line with what I’d expect from a slight increase in clock speed and a large increase in memory bandwidth.
When using the GPU to perform general purpose calculations, as tested in the GeekBench compute score (see above), the performance improvement is in the range of 7-8 percent.
A15+ would be a fairer name
There is no doubt that the A16 is not simply a “thrown away” version of the A15 (“in the bin” is when chips tested to perform better in production are separated and sold as another model. This is a new chip. But there are no major architectural revisions here that I can see, just minor revisions to improve maximum clock speed and power efficiency. This is less of a jump from last year’s model than we’re used to seeing in Apple’s annual iPhone revamp, a fact only underscored by the fact that the standard iPhone 14 models still have the A15 from Apple. last year while still offering key features such as Action Mode, Photonic Engine, and 4K Cinematic Mode.
Apple didn’t promote any specific feature of the processor as “new” except for the display engine (which is needed to manage the always-on display and 1Hz refresh rate of the iPhone 14 Pro), basically bringing it to the fore. most directly on the market against Android phones and the A13, the three-year-old flagship. The performance charts just don’t look very impressive with a 7-10 percent performance bump.
That’s why I feel like Apple probably shouldn’t have nicknamed this chip the A16. In most respects it is a tuned A15. Even the new “4nm” manufacturing process can best be described as a modified 5nm process. It’s probably unreasonable to expect breakthrough improvements every year, with all-new architectures delivering 20% performance gains. An occasional “tun-up” year is fine, especially since Apple now has such a commanding lead in smartphone performance. But the naming should reflect that, and a title like A15+ or A15 Pro feels like a more honest representation of this chip.