Where will Apple's A4 chip go next?

Apple's A4 chip may go into low-power servers or even TVs

Apple's internally developed A4 chip could be implemented in new devices such as low-power servers, TVs or even communications or entertainment boxes, if the company tries to expand the chip's footprint, analysts said.

It's difficult to predict Apple's future products, but variants of the A4 chip could reach media servers, entertainment gateways or network servers for cloud storage, analysts said. The low-power chip is designed for devices that do not require much horsepower, and can be tweaked to improve processing power, graphics or communication capabilities.

A remote, but unlikely, possibility is that the A4 also be included in future Macintosh computers as a co-processor alongside Intel's processors for specific network, security or instant-on applications, analysts said. However, the hybrid computers may be more expensive, and software issues may dog systems.

The A4 chip was first unveiled in January when Apple announced the iPad. The chip now powers Apple's iPhone 4 and the Apple TV device, which was introduced this week. The system-on-chip includes an Arm processor that runs at 1GHz and a graphics core capable of rendering 720p high-definition video.

If Apple decides to expand A4 to more devices, likely candidates would be low-power servers, said Jack Gold, principal analyst of J. Gold Associates.

"I suppose A4 could make its way into light 'server' devices, such as media servers where you don't really need all of the power of an [Intel Core] i3 or i5 chip. And there are companies already looking at Arm-based servers, so I would think this might be a direction for Apple to pursue," Gold said.

Low-power chips based on Arm are used in most smartphones today, and are slowly reaching servers as alternatives to power-hungry x86 server processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. Companies like Marvell and Smooth-stone have announced plans to build Arm CPUs into servers for cloud-computing environments.

Apple is essentially taking A4 in a similar direction that Intel is taking the low-power Atom processors, which are already being used in low-power servers, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

At a lower price than x86 chips, the A4 chip could be an attractive alternative to Atom.

"Arm's already being used in that class of products," McCarron said.

Media servers do not require much processing power and act more as network servers to store and serve multimedia, McCarron said. At the same time, the media server segment is already well-covered between the Apple TV device and the Mac Mini.

"It has a disk, has a network, and you're done." McCarron said.

The chip can also be used in TVs, or even networked media center gateways to store and distribute content across a range of Apple devices, said Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat.

Apple's product strategy revolves around bundling hardware, software and services. Apple logically could put an A4 variant in TV sets or media centers, which would then be able to seamlessly communicate and exchange content with devices like the iPhone or iPad, McGregor said.

"Consumers want all these things to work together, and Apple can very much do that," McGregor said.

Compatible software around the same architecture makes communication between devices easier, though it's not required as emulators could fill the incompatibility gap, McGregor said. However, the A4 chip across a range of devices could bring stability to software development.

The A4 chip is also highly customizable and can be tweaked for different devices, McGregor said. For example, more cores can be added for faster processing and graphics capabilities can be improved to gear A4 for gaming. Additional memory can be added to enhance application performance.

Apple also has skilled staff that can design A4-type chips to fit into specialized devices, McGregor said. The company's chip development staff includes employees who came with the 2008 acquisition of chip firm PA Semi, a company involved in designing low-power chips for embedded devices.

However, A4 should not be looked at as a long-term replacement for Intel processors in Macintosh computers, analysts said. Apple recently finished moving its software, including the Mac OS X operating system, to Intel architecture, and may not want to quickly transition to Arm. Macs also require substantially larger amounts of computing power, and Intel's chips are more powerful than the A4.

The A4 could be used as a co-processor for applications like instant-boot, which could boot up Macs in a few seconds for users to quickly access Web browsers or e-mail, analysts said. Dell already offers Arm processors alongside Intel processors in laptops specifically for instant-boot capabilities.

Apple could also include A4 as a security or network co-processor in Macs, Gold said. The chip could also be used to keep computers running when the main system is asleep to continuously get e-mails and messaging, Gold said.

However, the analysts agreed that bringing A4 to Macs may not be in Apple's immediate plans.

Apple did not respond to requests for comment on the company's A4 chip plans.

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Agam Shah

IDG News Service
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