Apple iPad Air will better exploit A7 64-bit chip than iPhone

Analysts say the iPad Air will take advantage of the A7's 64-bit capabilities to multitask and run more demanding applications

Apple's A7 chip has trickled down to the latest iPad Air after being introduced in the iPhone 5S, and users will see more benefits of the 64-bit chip in tablets than in smartphones, analysts say.

The iPad Air will deliver two times the CPU and graphics performance than its predecessor, said Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, during an event in San Francisco where the new tablet was announced.

The A7 chip opens the door "for even more robust and powerful apps" on the iPad Air, Apple wrote on its website. Applications and games will run much faster, Apple said.

The benefit of a 64-bit chip in the iPhone 5S has been intensely debated, but Apple will have to spend less time justifying a 64-bit processor in the iPad Air, analysts said. Some critics have called 64-bit technology marketing hype and overkill for a handset, but more relevant for devices like PCs, servers and, to a lesser extent, tablets.

The benefits of the 64-bit A7 chip will be visible as the iPad Air will be able to run more demanding applications than smartphones. But the results may not be immediate as applications need to be ready to take advantage of the 64-bit features.

"Tablet users can create more content and multitask more on their tablets than phones, and 64 bits helps a lot," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, in an email.

The A7 is more justifiable in the 64-bit iPad Air from a value standpoint when compared to smartphones, and the screen size makes a big difference, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

"It's likely you'll be doing video editing on a tablet," Brookwood said. "People who want to do multiperson, interactive games will have a better experience because of the increased [screen] real estate on tablets."

Apple is taking the lead in bringing 64-bit applications to mobile devices. Brookwood, who attended the event, said the company's 64-bit applications like iPhoto and iMovie, which are both on Mac OS and iOS, were demonstrated at the event and were much faster.

The software for the iPad Air needs to be ready to take advantage of the 64-bit features, said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates. Apple's iOS and developer tools are 64-bit ready, and applications are under development.

"The silicon is almost always out ahead of the software. It was true in PCs, it's true in servers, it's true here," Gold said.

The switch also helps developers, who can start the transition to 64-bit applications. Tablet app developers will likely move faster to 64-bit than iPhone developers, Gold said.

Tablets can have memory beyond 4GB with a 64-bit chip, which helps deliver performance improvements as more applications can be run simultaneously. Apple did not share information about the DRAM capacity of iPad Air.

Applications will run faster in iPad Air due to internal improvement in the A7 chip, which is based on new ARMv8 64-bit architecture. The architecture doubles the number of registers where programs store intermediate results.

"As the program is computing, if it's doing some sort of complex algorithm, it has to save those intermediate results in the main memory and then bring them back to registers," Brookwood said.

The ARMv8 architecture supports full virtualization, which could create a secure environment to run a guest OS or isolate potentially risky code. Faster math capabilities help boost the speed of security, video and other applications.

The iPad Air is more of an "evolution rather than revolution," Gold said, adding that the 64-bit chip is a good addition even though its effects will not be felt immediately. As the applications come and more memory is added, the benefits of 64-bit will be felt.

"Apple is positioning itself for the future," Gold said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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