Last month Apple introduced its latest generation of iPad Pro tablets, and much to the surprise of many, the new iDevices didn’t come with a high-end variant of Apple’s newest A13 SoC. Instead, the iPads used an SoC that Apple was calling the A12Z, clearly indicating that it was based on the same Vortex/Tempest architecture as the earlier A12X, which was used in the 2018 iPad Pros. The unusual move from Apple left us suspecting that the A12Z may not have even been a new chip, but rather a new bin of the A12X, and today we finally have confirmation of that theory thanks to TechInsights.

In a brief tweet, the technical analysis and reverse engineering firm published a note announcing their findings, along with side-by-side die shots comparing A12Z and A12X. In short, the two chips are seemingly identical, with every last functional block in exactly the same place and the same size on A12Z as it was A12X.

While TechInsights’ die shot analysis doesn’t suss out some finer details such as chip steppings – whether A12Z is even on a newer stepping, or if it’s the same stepping as the A12X that Apple was shipping in 2018 for the IPad Pro launch – it’s clear that in terms of silicon, A12Z doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

Instead, the notable changes between the two chips is in their binning/configuration: whereas the A12X only ever shipped with 7 of its GPU clusters enabled, A12Z ships with all 8 enabled. And while a small change in the grand picture of things, it makes sense for Apple to finally enable the 8th cluster for a bit more performance. A12X is produced on TSMC’s 7nm line, and when it was released in 2018, it was one of the biggest 7nm chips being churned out. So Apple should be enjoying much better yields 18 months later, reducing the need to bin to a lower spec to salvage chips.

Apple SoC Comparison
  A12Z A12X A13 A12
CPU 4x Apple Vortex
4x Apple Tempest
4x Apple Vortex
4x Apple Tempest
2x Apple Lightning
4x Apple Thunder
2x Apple Vortex
4x Apple Tempest
GPU 8-cluster, A12-gen 7-cluster, A12-gen
(+ 1 disabled)
4-cluster, A13-gen 4-cluster, A12-gen
Memory Bus 128-bit LPDDR4X 128-bit LPDDR4X 64-bit LPDDR4X 64-bit LPDDR4X
Manufacturing Process TSMC 7nm (N7) TSMC 7nm (N7) TSMC 7nm (N7P) TSMC 7nm (N7)

As for why Apple would opt to re-use A12X for their 2020 tablets instead of commissioning an A13X, while we can only speculate, it almost certainly comes down to economics, as the tablet market is quite different from the smartphone market. Apple is virtually unchallenged as far as high-performance Arm tablets go, and even then, the number of iPads they sell has always been a drop in the bucket compared to the number of iPhones they sell. So there are fewer devices to amortize the costs of chip development against, and all the while chip development costs are continuing to rise with each new generation of photolithography technology. In short, at some point it has to stop making sense to create new chip designs on a yearly basis for mid-volume products, and Apple may very well have finally hit that mark with their tablet SoCs.

Source: TechInsights

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  • jeffrey - Monday, April 13, 2020 - link

    The other article on the new iPad Pro (2020) lists the A12X as having an 8-cluster GPU in the table instead of 7-cluster.
  • Lord of the Bored - Monday, April 13, 2020 - link

    The A12X had eight GPU clusters. Apple disabled one and sold it as a 7-cluster design(as is very common in the graphics industry). The A12Z is exactly the same part.
  • jeffrey - Monday, April 13, 2020 - link

    Thanks Lord.., but AnandTech has updated the other article’s table now to have it be reflective of the 7 active clusters, so there’s that..
  • eek2121 - Monday, April 13, 2020 - link

    It likely operates at a higher TDP.
  • Samus - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    I was thinking it could be a higher clock speed too. Who knows. The problem for consumers is since Apple is unchallenged, they have no real incentive to push the performance envelope. Considering how things are going in the world, it wouldn't be all that shocking if they reuse lightning\thunder cores in the next iPhones.
  • BedfordTim - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    Is it more a case of not needing more performance? The iPad Pro lives in a strange part of the market, way too expensive to be a tablet and yet not as useful as for work device as a Surface or MacBook.
  • s.yu - Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - link

    Many would disagree that it's too expensive to be a tablet, specs are top notch after all, I also believe it runs the Adobe suite and many other media creation software better than Surface. It's worth the price as a high end digitizer.
    It's now more useful as a work device with the new keyboard and touchpad but I'm not taking the plunge until they fix bendgate or add a headphone jack and/or third C port to the keyboard. I can take one of these issues as a compromise but not both.
  • BedfordTim - Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - link

    Specs are top notch but that only matters if you can tell the difference. My Surface only gets used when I'm travelling as I find it just too small for serious use.
  • s.yu - Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - link

    That's very subjective, I used a 12.3" as a daily device for over 2 years. I believe most Surface users have similar experiences.
    And of course the screen, the speakers, the battery life and the wide support for apps all make differences. You don't even have an anatomy model on Windows as high quality as one that can be found on iOS.
  • Speedfriend - Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - link

    I have a Surface Pro and an iPad Pro and there is no comparison. The iPad Pro is a toy, with so many annoying software glitches when using it. The Surface is brilliant, just wish it had USBC.

    Adobe on the iPad is not the full version, it lacks much of the functionality

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