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64-bit chip gives Apple a way to out-Surface Microsoft, Windows OEMs

'Desktop-class' A7 could signal new convertible hardware based on the iPad, say analysts

September 17, 2013 01:43 PM ET

Computerworld - Apple's move to 64-bit with its A7 system-on-a-chip (SoC) inside the iPhone 5S gives the Cupertino, Calif. company the flexibility to launch a new line of tablet-based devices to replace at least some Intel-driven Mac personal computers, analysts said today.

"Where the A7 starts to make a difference is in the iPad, where much more memory intensive applications are possible," said Ben Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies. "There could come a time when the only Mac running x86 [processors from Intel] is the Mac Pro, and ARM bleeds up to the lower-cost Macs."

Last week, Apple revealed that the A7 SoC powering the new iPhone 5S relies on a 64-bit, custom-designed processor licensed from ARM, the U.K. chip design company whose silicon sits inside virtually every smartphone and most tablets.

While some analysts struggled to see the advantage of 64-bit inside a smartphone -- the technology's most obvious benefits come only when it addresses more than the 4GB memory limitation of 32-bit CPUs, an amount not yet seen in phones or tablets -- Bajarin and others said there was plenty to tout short-term.

"A lot of people have glossed over the A7," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "There are advantages for the iPhone from the ARM V8 instruction set, an improved instructions-per-clock and improved cache, subsystems and a new GPU [graphics processor unit]. You won't see a performance increase in applications that require less than 4GB of memory, but that doesn't mean the A7 isn't important."

Moorhead, who was once the marketing manager at AMD when that processor maker transitioned to 64-bit, said the 2X performance increase trumpeted by Apple last week came from the A7's multiple improvements over the 32-bit A6 that ran last year's iPhone 5 (and this year's iPhone 5C).

"I think a lot of people missed why this matters now," added Bajarin in an interview. "Apple did a lot of very good optimizations [with the A7] for performance benefits with iOS 7 right now. The iPhone is tangibly better now, so there is a short-term impact."

But both analysts saw the A7's future possibilities, driven by its 64-bit architecture, as much more important than the immediate payoff in the iPhone.

The 64-bit processor, which Apple went out of its way last week to describe as "desktop-class," will likely power the refreshed iPads most expect the company to reveal next month. That opens up all kinds of opportunities for Apple.

"You can be productive on a 10-in. screen," Bajarin argued, citing the iPad's display size. "But you need more computing power for productivity tasks." And the 64-bit A7, along with more system memory, would provide the necessary power to run desktop-class applications like those now segregated to OS X and the Mac line of personal computers.



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