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Why Apple’s 64-bit A7 processor matters

Published Sep 11th, 2013 12:55PM EDT
Apple A7 64-bit Processor Analysis

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Apple’s 64-bit A7 processor in the iPhone 5S has generated considerable buzz even though some observers have pointed out that having a 64-bit smartphone won’t pay immediate dividends in terms of performance since the device doesn’t have anything close to 4GB of RAM. But as CNET’s Stephen Shankland explains, being the first to market with a 64-bit smartphone processor is all about long-term positioning for Apple and isn’t about an immediate boost in performance.

First, a quick primer on terminology: Chips with more bits can handle more memory. In other words, a 32-bit chip is designed to handle memory addresses of up to 32 bits while a 64-bit chip is designed to handle memory addresses of up to 64 bits. However, in order for this to really make a difference in performance, the processors need to have a bigger chunk of RAM that they can use. This is why many observers have noted that merely having a 64-bit processor won’t deliver much of a performance boost for a device that still has, at most, 2GB of RAM.

And given that smartphones with 4GB of RAM are still likely a ways off, it’s fair to ask whether Apple needlessly jumped the gun with a leap to 64-bit chips. Shankland’s counter to this is that smartphones with 4GB of RAM are coming at some point and when they do, Apple will not only have the proper hardware but the proper app ecosystem to take advantage of them.

Apple has retooled iOS 7 — the kernel a the heart of the software, the libraries of pre-written code that it and other software draw upon, and the device drivers the kernel uses to talk to hardware like the network and touch screen — so it’s 64-bit software,” he notes. “And it’s got a version of its Xcode developer tools so that programmers can build 64-bit versions of their iOS products.”

Shankland acknowledges that it will take a long time for the iOS app ecosystem to move to 64-bit architecture but he thinks Apple is making a smart move by giving its developers all the tools they need to get an early start.

“Given how long it takes to make the transition, it’s important to lay the hardware foundation early enough that the software market can move gracefully,” he explains. “Even though adding more RAM is hard in mobile devices, it’ll happen. It might well happen sooner on iPads, too, which can handle faster processors, bigger batteries, and more elaborate software. And it’s possible that computing engineers will successfully commercialize some other form or memory that’s not as power-hungry.”

In other words, adding a 64-bit chip to the iPhone 5S isn’t a selling point for one particular device; rather, it’s a long-term selling point for the entire iOS app ecosystem.

Brad Reed
Brad Reed Staff Writer

Brad Reed has written about technology for over eight years at and Network World. Prior to that, he wrote freelance stories for political publications such as AlterNet and the American Prospect. He has a Master's Degree in Business and Economics Journalism from Boston University.