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iPhone 5s: Is Apple innovating or playing catch-up?

Florence Ion, Armando Rodriguez | Sept. 12, 2013
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Apple must really love its competition. Although Cook and crew are quick to throw a lawsuit at any company they consider a copy-cat, they aren't afraid to borrow good ideas from competitors and wrap them in glittery buzzwords.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Apple must really love its competition. Although Cook and crew are quick to throw a lawsuit at any company they consider a copy-cat, they aren't afraid to borrow good ideas from competitors and wrap them in glittery buzzwords.

Indeed, Tuesday's iPhone announcement felt like déjà vu--we could have sworn we'd seen various iPhone 5s features in competing products over the past year. So let's take a look at the new phone's key features, and point out where Apple is innovating and where it's playing catch-up.

The 64-bit A7

Score one for innovation. Apple is certainly on the bleeding edge of mobile processor technology with the A7 system-on-chip (SoC). Apple didn't specify the graphics core it uses, though the mention of OpenGL ES 3.0 support during Apple's presentation makes the new PowerVR Series6 a safe bet. But it's all that talk of fancy 64-bit support that makes the A7 sound like a big deal. And to some degree, it is.

Apple is bringing to market the first consumer product with a 64-bit ARM processor. (AppliedMicro offers a 64-bit ARM SoC called X-Gene, but it's just for servers.) The move to 64-bit signals that Apple has built the A7 on the ARMv8 architecture, while nearly all smartphone chips from the past couple of years have been based on the older ARMv7 architecture.

So what do 64-bit and the ARMv8 architecture get us in terms of real-world performance dividends? Well, 64-bit memory addressing is hardly necessary in phones yet, but a host of other goodies are in there. A new cleaned-up, fixed-length instruction set, wider registers, wider SIMD units, lots of stuff to speed up encryption...it's "the largest architecture change in ARM's history," according to its PDF on the subject.

We won't know how Apple's implementation performs until the iPhone 5s is released and benchmarked, but the potential gains for well-optimized apps are pretty big. Apple's in the lead here. Nvidia's "Project Denver" SoC (due in 2014) will implement the ARMv8 architecture, and the Samsung Exynos and Qualcomm Snapdragon lines are supposedly in line to get 64-bit ARMv8 models next year, too.

The upshot: While others cram four or more cores into their SoCs and ramp up clock speeds to get better performance, Apple is focusing on greater efficiency and features in a dual-core chip.

The M7 co-processor

This is certainly an innovative approach to managing existing technologies--but Apple isn't the first smartphone company to try it.

Apple's M7 co-processor works alongside the core A7 processor to measure motion data for health and fitness apps. Specifically, the extremely power-efficient M7 controls the phone's key sensors--the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass--enabling the 5s to continuously monitor the sensors' data without tapping into the primary processor, which is a battery hog.

 

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