Apple reveals epic 3-year drive to perfect A11 Bionic chip

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A11 Bionic chip is Apple's most powerful smartphone processor ever.
A11 Bionic chip is Apple's most powerful smartphone processor ever.
Photo: Apple

The new A11 Bionic processor that powers the iPhone 8 and iPhone X is the most powerful smartphone chip Apple ever created. But making a processor that’s perfect for AI tasks took some big bets by Apple.

In a new interview with the company’s SVP of hardware tech, Johny Srouji, and marketing boss Phil Schiller, Apple reveals how it took three years to come up with the perfect solution.

Schiller and Srouji told Mashable that the company starts development of its silicon by looking three years out. When the iPhone 6 and its A8 chip were introduced in 2014, Apple wasn’t even talking about AI on the mobile level. The company made a gamble early on that it would soon need a neural engine embedded in its chips to support features of the future.

“The process is flexible to changes,” said Srouji, explaining that if a team comes to him with a request that wasn’t part of the original plan the reaction is, “We need to make that happen. We don’t say, ‘No, let me get back to my roadmap and, five years later, I’ll give you something.”

Building the perfect processor

A11 neural chip
Schiller nerded out onstage talking about the A11 Bionic processor.
Photo: Apple

Designing its own silicon is one of the biggest advantages Apple has over its competitors. Rival smartphone-makers must build around chips created by other companies. Apple, on the other hand, can create a chip perfectly suited to its needs.

Basically, different divisions like Schiller’s marketing group or the display team approach Srouji’s team and tell them what they think they’ll need in three years. It’s then Srouji’s job to iterate on previous chip designs to make it possible or start from scratch.

The process isn’t always perfect, though. Schiller revealed that at times, Apple needed to push for changes originally unforeseen by its teams.

“There have been some critical things in the past few years, where we’ve asked Johny’s team to do something on a different schedule, on a different plan than they had in place for years, and they moved heaven and earth and done it, and it’s remarkable to see.”

Doing all of that pays off bigly for Apple. The A11 Bionic chip is so powerful, early benchmarks suggest its performance is on par with the new 13-inch MacBook Pro in some areas. That’s a ton of processing power in your pocket.

Apple’s not resting on its laurels, though. According to Srouji, the next big things are already in development.

“We’re thinking ahead, I’ll tell you that, and I don’t think we’ll be limited,” he said. But then he added: “It’s getting harder.”