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Why Apple's 64-bit iPhone chip is a bigger deal than you think

Why Apple's 64-bit iPhone chip is a bigger deal than you think


iOS is about to go beyond post-PC

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In the wake of Tuesday's iPhone event, you've likely heard the news that iOS 7 and its core apps have been ported to 64-bit, and Apple's new iPhone 5s now has a 64-bit "A7" system-on-chip (SoC) inside. You might have also heard that it's just a marketing stunt; a cynical attempt to wow consumers into buying Apple's latest and greatest iPhone. You heard wrong.

Everyone is hard at work developing 64-bit mobile processors

"This is the first ever [64-bit processor] in a phone of any kind," a triumphant Phil Schiller said on stage Tuesday, "I don't think the other guys are even talking about it yet." Yes, it’s the first, but Schiller is wrong about the competition. ARMv8, the architecture that Apple's new processor is undoubtedly based upon, has been out in the open for a year now, and Qualcomm, Samsung, Nvidia, Intel, and the rest are all hard at work developing 64-bit mobile processors. To hammer that point home, less than 48 hours after Apple's presentation Samsung announced that its upcoming high-end smartphones would include 64-bit SoCs, and Intel said its new processors will support a 64-bit Android kernel. Apple’s 64-bit boast may be short-lived: Nathan Brookwood, research fellow at the consultancy firm Insight 64, agrees that Apple "has seized 64-bit leadership in mobile devices," but notes that it’s only "nine to twelve months ahead of any Android competition." So why is Apple — and everybody else — pushing for this change?

The iPhone’s RAM has increased eightfold since 2007

Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, tells The Verge "there are no positives or negatives that 64-bits bring to the table," aside from the ability to address more than 4GB of RAM. Since its release in 2007, Apple has increased the iPhone’s RAM from 128MB to a rumored 2GB in the 5s, while Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 recently broke the Android RAM record with 3GB. Moorhead doesn't believe the industry will "run into a 32-bit wall for three to five years." The 32-bit wall describes the point when 64-bit processors become a must: high-end computing requires a lot of RAM.

The ability to access more RAM will definitely be necessary in the future, but it's ARMv8's 64-bit architecture that'll start paying off immediately. Extra registers — tiny units of storage inside the processor — let the A7 crunch numbers more efficiently, improving performance significantly for tasks like encoding and decoding video. Thanks in part to this, but mainly to its increased core count, higher clock speed, and improved GPU, the new iPhone 5s will likely fly through iOS apps with an aplomb never seen before. The only negatives to the switch are that 64-bit applications are almost always larger than their 32-bit cousins, and in most cases will use slightly more memory.

As Schiller alluded to on stage, the move to 64-bit isn't unique to iOS. Your desktop computer almost certainly runs a 64-bit OS. Windows enabled 64-bit home computing back in 2005, while Apple's big push came with OS X Snow Leopard in 2009. Although the desktop space is still transitioning to 64-bit — many Windows and OS X apps still operate at 32-bit — iOS should be able to move over in record time thanks to Apple's supreme control over its mobile OS and development tools.

Apple's supreme control of iOS makes the 64-bit switch simple

The company's development software, Xcode, will likely make 64-bit the default for developers, dispelling any fear that iOS will suddenly become a difficult OS to program for. Apple employed the same tactic last year when switching ARMv7 architectures for the iPhone 5. Apps that rely on third-party libraries, tools, and runtimes could, in theory, pose more of a problem. However, despite developers being kept in the dark on the switch to 64-bit until the event, we've already seen popular third parties announce that 64-bit compatibility will be ready soon. Even apps that are no longer being updated shouldn’t pose a huge issue, as Moorhead explains: "There should not be any impact in performance running 32-bit applications on a 64-bit platform."

The naysayers that call 64-bit a marketing gimmick don't see the bigger picture. During a joint interview with Bill Gates at an All Things Digital conference in 2007, Steve Jobs famously coined the phrase "post-PC device," defining it as "a category of devices that aren't as general purpose [as a PC], that are really more focused on specific functions, whether they're phones or iPods or Zunes or what have you." Somewhat ironically, the iPhone has become the antithesis of that idea. It's a single, general-purpose device that wants to do everything, so long as "there’s an app for that." It's practically post-post-PC.

With the launch and continued development of the iPad, iOS has become more and more of a productivity tool, to the point where if you don’t require the power of an Intel processor, beefy GPU, and a large screen, you’ll be able to survive with just an iPad for a computer. Apple sees that trend, and it sees that iOS can be a true desktop competitor. The quiet release of a 128GB iPad with Apple specifically calling out AutoCAD support is a good example, and it's impossible to ignore that the company's iWork productivity apps will be free in iOS 7.

"This is our most forward-thinking phone yet."

Apple sees that the Windows laptop — and MacBook — markets will shrink over time, and that iOS represents its future. iPhones and iPads aren't post-PC, they are PCs. With the A7 chip family, Apple’s mobile OS is ready for complex apps and the increased RAM they demand, transforming iOS and the devices it powers into the next generation of truly personal computing. As Phil Schiller says, this is Apple's "most forward-thinking phone yet."