Why Apple went 64-bit with the iPhone 5s

Summary:The reasons why Apple put a 64-bit processor inside the iPhone 5s goes way beyond hype. While the applications for it might be limited right now, Apple is paving the way for improvements that we'll see trickle into the iPhone over the next few years.

A7 inside the iPhone 5s
(Source: Apple)

One of the flagship features of Apple's new iPhone 5s is that it has at its heart the 64-bit A7 chip. But why did Apple feel the need to bump the iPhone's processor up from 32-bits in the first place?

It's a first

Apple like bragging about being first.

It looks and sounds good

Come on, making the leap from a 32-bit processor to a 64-bit processor looks and sounds good. When dealing with consumers, throwing in some numbers that are bigger than what the competition can manage – 1 billion transistors, 64-bit – helps sales.

On top of that, Apple threw around the phrase 'desktop-class architecture' during the unveiling of the iPhone 5s, which also sounds pretty cool, don't you think?

Android isn't ready for 64-bit

Apple has scored a win here over Android handset makers. The 64-bit chips for Android devices aren't ready, and neither is Android itself. It is likely that Android 5.0 will be the first version to fully utilize the new ARMv8 architecture.

For now, this gives Apple a clear lead over the competition, and the gap is unlikely to the closed until 2014 at the earliest.

The move allows for more RAM

The iPhone 5 is kitted out with 1GB of RAM, but a shift from a 32-bit processor to a 64-bit part paves the way for iPhones – and for that matter, the iPad or even Apple TV, where more RAM could open the way for 4K – to be fitted out with 4GB+ of RAM down the line.

Since Apple doesn't divulge how much RAM is baked into iPhones, we'll have to wait for the teardown to find out the exact figure, but despite the shift to a 64-bit processor, I'm not expecting it to have 4GB, but there will come a day when it is needed.

Apple is now ready for that day.

Unifying the iOS/OS X app codebase

Apple openly acknowledges that moving iOS up to 64-bit brings iOS and OS X apps much closer. Take this line from Apple's 64-bit iOS 7 documentation:

The architecture for 64-bit apps on iOS is almost identical to the architecture for OS X apps, making it easy to create a common code base that runs in both operating systems.

This could be huge.

64-bit CPUs are better suited to some heavy computational lifting tasks

There are some iPhone 5s features that could benefit from having access to a 64-bit processor. The camera that can pick the best picture from a series of shots and allow you to fire off slo-mo video at 120 frames per second is one. Image processing is demanding, and the headroom offered by the A7 processor could lessen the workload.

Same goes for that fingerprint reader. If Apple is using heavyweight crypto behind that scanner, then this too would benefit from a 64-bit processor.

Puts pressure on Intel

Currently, CPUs for Mac hardware is supplied by Intel, but the A7 processor, with its billion transistors and 64-bit architecture, sends a clear message that Apple is serious about developing its own processors.

While I don't see Apple shifting away from Intel any time soon, the fact that the company is now a big player in the processor market helps even the playing field between it and Intel, and puts it in a stronger position when negotiating.

Bottom line

The bottom line is that there's a lot more to the iPhone switching to a 64-bit processor than hype. While the applications for it might be limited right now, Apple is paving the way for improvements that we'll see trickle into the iPhone over the next few years.

Topics: Mobility, Apple, iPhone, Processors

About

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes is an internationally published technology author who has devoted over a decade to helping users get the most from technology -- whether that be by learning to program, building a PC from a pile of parts, or helping them get the most from their new MP3 player or digital camera.Adrian has authored/co-authored technic... Full Bio

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