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

The phone's A7 chip gets a jump on Samsung's next Galaxy design

The 64-bit smartphone clash has been joined between rivals Apple and Samsung. But will everyday smartphone buyers even care, much less notice?

Not in the short term, but then technology is often ahead of buyer awareness or popularity.

Samsung this week confirmed it will have ARM-based 64-bit processors in its next top-line Galaxy-branded smartphones. That move came almost immediately after Apple on Tuesday announced the iPhone 5s, saying it will ship Sept. 20 with a 64-bit A7 processor. The iPhone 5c and the older iPhone 5 use a 32-bit A6 chip.

Down the road, a 64-bit processor would be able to handle code for more demanding high-end games or health-related apps using bio-sensors that spit out tons of data. It could help in data-intensive video editing or for playing ultra high-definition 4K video, which has potential for businesses as well as consumers.

"Yes, our next smartphones will have 64-bit processing," JK Shin told the Korea Times shortly after the iPhone 5s was announced. He also said that Samsung, based in Korea, should be trying harder for Samsung sales in China, a renewed target for Apple.

In one sense, Samsung's move to match Apple in 64-bit computing indicates that 64-bit is an important advance for smartphones, similar to the way that PCs went from 32-bit to 64-bit several years ago.

But with 64-bit apps for smartphones not available yet and with puny memory allotments of 2GB or less in most smartphones, Apple's move -- and therefore Samsung's planned move -- are seen by many analysts as more of a marketing play than anything else.

"64 bits only adds memory addressability, nothing else, and that doesn't bring any value to mobile today," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "Right now, the 64-bit race is silly, as it doesn't bring anything to users.... Tomorrow, as memory densities get higher and apps get more sophisticated, there will [be benefit]."

British chip designer ARM first announced the ARMv8 architecture, which is being licensed by Apple and others, in 2011. Moorhead and other analysts believe that these same 64-bit ARM-based chips could be used to replace Intel chips in laptops, or used in a coming Chromebook.

Apple's iOS 7 update, rolling out for free to iPhone 4 and later versions on Sept. 18, is designed to handle the A7 64-bit architecture. But analysts noted that Samsung and Google don't even have Android ready yet for 64-bit hardware.

"It seems to me that Samsung is more interested in showing they can technically do 64-bit, too, although...Android is not being built for 64-bit," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Gartner. It's likely that Android 5.0 will be the first version to fully take advantage of the ARMv8 design, according to various sources.

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."

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