Apple buys second ARM chip design firm, Intrinsity

Readers who have their ears to the grapevine will remember the excitement over Apple’s acquisition two years ago of PA Semi, which led directly to the production of its first in-house ARM CPU, the 1GHz A4 which is at the heart of every iPad.

Now, indications are that Apple has made a second acquisition to bolster its in-house ARM SoC development efforts: Intrinsity, formerly a close partner of major ARM manufacturer Samsung. What does this mean for the future of Apple’s iDevice hardware?

Among many other specialties in ARM SoC design, Intrinsity is well known for its engineering talents in the area of power efficiency optimization. Particularly for ultra-compact iDevices, power efficiency doesn’t just mean long battery life….it means that faster, more powerful ARM chips with higher clock speeds can be packed into the same package.

While we’ve been hearing about this acquisition, which has apparently been in negotiations for at least two months, from sources at Infinite Loop for weeks now….those reports were under strict embargo due to the limited number of Apple employees privy to information about those negotiations. In the past two days, those embargoes have been lifted due to more public hints being dropped by Intrinsity employees: several have recently changed their LinkedIn profiles and other publicly posted information to reflect their new status as employees of Apple.

Interestingly, Intrinsity was spawned from PowerPC chipmaker Exponential Technologies, which was working to bring an third-party PPC processor to market in the final days of the Mac Clone era (something that many modern-day Apple fans may not even realize occurred). Once upon a time, many of us at Rumors were excited by the possibility of third-party Macs built around Exponential’s G3 and G4 class processors at a time when Motorola and IBM were devoting less and less effort to keeping the PowerPC platform on the cutting edge.

Although Steve Jobs’ decision to close the door on Mac OS licensing killed the clone market, and with it most of Exponential’s business prospects, the company’s Austin TX division moved into other areas of PPC chip design (like Motorola/Freescale, mostly the embedded market)….and eventually, transitioned to the ARM platform. With ARM’s recent success, Intrinsity rose to prominence in its partnership with Samsung, recently delivering a unique 1GHz Cortex A8 based SoC to Samsung which has been widely praised for its superior efficiency in high-end smartphones.

Intrinsity will be working on the A5, Apple’s next generation in-house ARM SoC design which features a dual core Cortex A9 CPU unit, much faster PowerVR SGX graphics processing unit, and generous on-chip DDR2 memory.

The A5 is expected to premiere in early 2011 at the heart of the second generation iPad, and in the iPhone 4G shipping summer that summer. There are even indications that it may replace the Intel Pentium M processor in next-gen AppleTV hardware as it merges with the iDevice platform.

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