Apple's 64-bit A7 chip is a 'marketing gimmick'

Qualcomm is also developing a 64-bit mobile chip, but for chip design and engineering purposes

Apple's 64-bit A7 processor in the iPhone 5s is more a marketing stunt than a technical enhancement and though it will not deliver any immediate benefits to smartphone users, there are other reasons to move to 64-bit, a Qualcomm executive said on Tuesday.

"I know there's a lot of noise because Apple did [64-bit] on their A7," said Anand Chandrasekher, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Qualcomm, in an interview. "I think they are doing a marketing gimmick. There's zero benefit a consumer gets from that."

A benefit of 64-bit is more memory addressability, but that is not relevant in today's smartphones or tablets, Chandrasekher said. The iPhone 5s has only 1GB of DRAM.

"Predominantly... you need it for memory addressability beyond 4GB. That's it. You don't really need it for performance, and the kinds of applications that 64-bit get used in mostly are large, server-class applications," said Chandrasekher, who previously ran Intel's mobile platforms group.

The 5s is the first smartphone with a 64-bit chip, and almost a year ahead of its Android smartphone rivals. So far, 64-bit chips have largely been relegated to PCs and servers, but the technology's merits in smaller mobile devices has been questioned.

Apple claims the iPhone 5s is two times faster than its predecessor, and that the A7 brings desktop-style computing to the smartphone. But benchmark tets have raised questions about how much of the performance gains can be credited purely to 64-bit capabilities.

Qualcomm is the one of the world's top suppliers of chips for smartphones and tablets, and its Snapdragon chips are used in Android and Windows Phone smartphones. The chip maker ultimately will deliver a 64-bit mobile chip, but sees the move as more beneficial from engineering, chip design and OSes standpoints.

"From an engineering efficiency standpoint it just makes sense to go do that. Particularly the OS guys will want it at some point in time," said Chandrasekher, who declined to say when the its 64-bit chip would be introduced.

Consumers and tablet and smartphone makers won't drive the demand for 64-bit chips, Chandrasekher said.

Chip makers are upgrading to 64-bit in order to keep up with the latest chip designs and to reduce manufacturing costs. Qualcomm designs chips based on architecture from ARM Holdings, which in 2011 introduced its first 64-bit architecture and subsequently announced 64-bit processor designs. Top ARM-based chip makers like Samsung and Nvidia have already announced that they would make 64-bit ARM-based processors.

But outside the iPhone 5s, the first 64-bit ARM-based chips are expected to appear in servers like Hewlett-Packard's Moonshot. Companies like AppliedMicro, Advanced Micro Devices and Calxeda are expected to ship 64-bit ARM-based server chips starting next year.

Qualcomm is keeping tabs on the server market, but its interest remains in the smartphone and tablet markets. More than 500 products with Snapdragon are in development, 40 of which are tablets.

Qualcomm will also continue to back Windows RT and invest in chip development around the OS, Chandrasekher said.

Microsoft recently introduced the Surface 2 tablet, which has an Nvidia Tegra 4 chip. But Dell last week discontinued its only Windows RT tablet, the XPS 10, which ran on a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip. Lenovo, Asus and Samsung have already discontinued Windows RT tablets.

"We've been investing quite a bit into both Windows Phone and Windows RT. We're one of Microsoft's partners," Chandrasekher said. "We're optimistic in the way we invest in the marketplace, we're cautious of the outlook in terms of what the revenues might look like."

Another area of focus is the wearable market. The company last month introduced the Toq smartwatch, which is more a showcase of the company's Mirasol display, WiPower wireless charging and Bluetooth headset technologies. Only a few thousand Toq smartwatches will be produced every year.

Chandrasekher hopes the smartwatch will give a new lease on life to the low-power Mirasol display technology, which has been used in just a handful of e-readers and tablets. He hopes Mirasol will ultimately make it to smartphones and other devices.

There will be a lot of experimentation in wearables, and it is tough to predict what devices will succeed, Chandrasekher said. Watches can be easily accepted, but completely new devices like wearable glasses could face a challenge, he said.

"Google Glass, I'm not a huge fan of that," Chandrasekher said. "That's a little harder to predict if that will be successful."

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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