With new iPhone 5s, Apple launches the 64-bit smartphone war

The phone's A7 chip gets a jump on Samsungs next Galaxy design

The 64-bit smartphone clash has been joined between rivals Apple and Samsung. But will everyday smartphone buyers even care, much less notice?

None

Not in the short term, but then technology is often ahead of buyer awareness or popularity.

Samsung this week confirmed it will have ARM-based 64-bit processors in its next top-line Galaxy-branded smartphones. That move came almost immediately after Apple on Tuesday announced the iPhone 5s, saying it will ship Sept. 20 with a 64-bit A7 processor. The iPhone 5c and the older iPhone 5 use a 32-bit A6 chip.

Down the road, a 64-bit processor would be able to handle code for more demanding high-end games or health-related apps using bio-sensors that spit out tons of data. It could help in data-intensive video editing or for playing ultra high-definition 4K video, which has potential for businesses as well as consumers.

"Yes, our next smartphones will have 64-bit processing," JK Shin told the Korea Times shortly after the iPhone 5s was announced. He also said that Samsung, based in Korea, should be trying harder for Samsung sales in China, a renewed target for Apple.

In one sense, Samsung's move to match Apple in 64-bit computing indicates that 64-bit is an important advance for smartphones, similar to the way that PCs went from 32-bit to several 64-bit years ago.

But with 64-bit apps for smartphones not available yet and with puny memory allotments of 2GB or less in most smartphones, Apple's move -- and therefore Samsung's planned move -- are seen by many analysts as more of a marketing play than anything else.

"64 bits only adds memory addressability, nothing else, and that doesn't bring any value to mobile today," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "Right now, the 64-bit race is silly, as it doesn't bring anything to users.... Tomorrow, as memory densities get higher and apps get more sophisticated, there will [be benefit]."

British chip designer ARM first announced the ARMv8 architecture, which is being licensed by Apple and others, in 2011. Moorhead and other analysts believe that these same 64-bit ARM-based chips could be used to replace Intel chips in laptops, or used in a coming Chromebook.

Apple's iOS 7 update, rolling out for free to iPhone 4 and later versions on Sept. 18, is designed to handle the A7 64-bit architecture. But analysts noted that Samsung and Google don't even have Android ready yet for 64-bit hardware.

"It seems to me that Samsung is more interested in showing they can technically do 64-bit, too, although...Android is not being built for 64-bit," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Gartner. It's likely that Android 5.0 will be the first version to fully take advantage of the ARMv8 design, according to various sources.

Apple's new iPhone 5s uses a 64-bit A7 processor.

It was an interesting move by Samsung to seek to compete with Apple on 64-bit smartphones, analysts said, given that Samsung has so done well with phones and phablets that focus on larger displays, while Apple has stuck with a 4-in. display -- even in the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c. The Galaxy Note 3, announced by Samsung earlier this month, will sport a 5.7-in. display with a digital stylus and is set to ship in the U.S. in October.

Consumers will probably be far more interested in having a larger display than a 64-bit processor, analysts said, which should give Samsung and Android, and future Android apps, plenty of time to catch up to Apple.

"Other smartphone features will probably be more meaningful to buyers than 64-bit," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "But in a mature market where every marketing ploy is useful, 64-bit is one more weapon for Apple to wield. How important it will be remains to be seen, but it could sway some consumers."

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research, noted that 64-bit ARM processors have been in the pipeline for a long time, but added, "Apple was very clever in turning this inevitable evolution into a major marketing message," he said.

While it's true that most apps today don't need a 64-bit design or a more powerful processor, Gottheil said the iPhone 5s camera app likely exploits the A7's processing power and its 64-bit architecture to offer less blur and better color in flash conditions. "The burst and slow-motion features also probably exercise the processor," he said.

A new M7 motion coprocessor in the 5s will also probably use the A7 to process the M7's data, Gottheil surmised. The M7 will include rich information from the phone's acceleromoter, gyroscope and compass that can be used in health-related apps, an indication that the M7 could be integrated into the rumored iWatch, Gottheil said.

"There are undoubtedly other possible applications that will exploit both the increased performance and 64-bit characteristics of the new processors, which is why all the smartphone vendors plan to use them," Gottheil said. "Apple was a little ahead of the curve and leveraged its advantage."

But what do developers think of 64-bit, and Apple's purported advance?

Two senior engineers at Solstice Mobile, a mobile app developer for businesses, weighed in. David Henke, iOS principal at Solstice, said 64-bit poses "potential hardships for developers when developing with C code," but he said Apple has helped minimize that concern with a Cocoa Objective-C abstraction tool ( download PDF).

"The 64-bit architecture will allow for a greater processor power in the realms of cache and registers," Henke said. Registers are small amounts of storage within a CPU like the A7.

Henke also predicted 64-bit could figure into Apple's long-range plans for a unified operating system to "blur the lines" between OS X (now 64-bit native) and iOS -- a monumental objective. Apple noted in its iOS 7 description that the architecture for 64-bit apps on iOS is nearly identical to the architecture for OS X apps, "making it easy to create a common code base that runs in both operating systems."

Chad Armstrong, iOS consultant for Solstice, said Apple's claim that 64-bit apps will be able to operate at faster speeds than 32-bit apps has merit. One reason is that the 64-bit processor will have twice as many registers as a 32-bit chip and theoretically be able to work with more data at once for improved performance.

"Accessing data from the registers is very quick," he said. The A7 "isn't just about being able to address more than 4GB of memory [in a smartphone], but being able to access more data quickly in the additional registers," Armstrong said.

The current iPhone 5 has been shown in teardowns to have 1GB of DRAM memory. Apple hasn't revealed how big the DRAM in the iPhone 5s is, although 4GB is the amount most cited by experts as needed for a 64-bit processor running 64-bit apps.

Clearly, there's excitement for 64-bit smartphone processors and apps among developers, if not a great amount of information yet about the kinds of apps average users would want and when they'd be available. That's especially true in business settings where high-end games aren't a top priority. But 4k video and video editing applications for 64-bit smartphones could be important to many kinds of businesses, including camera-intensive security concerns, analysts noted.

"This is just like the old days when PCs went to 64-bit, but the OS stayed at 32-bit for some time afterwards," Gold said. "Eventually, 64-bit will matter in smartphones."

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