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

Matt Hamblen | Sept. 16, 2013
The phone's A7 chip gets a jump on Samsung's next Galaxy design

The iPhone 5s
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).


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