Apple's 64-bit A-series chips and an iOS future for the Mac

Will Apple [AAPL] abandon Intel in order to transition the Macintosh to ARM-based A-series processors? Taking a look at the specifications of the iPhone chip makes this outlandish suggestion seem a little more possible than before.


[ABOVE: OpenGL ES 3.0 may account for graphics improvements, but 64-bit mobile chips make a Mac transition more possible.]

Only what's possible

I'll stress in starting that while this may seem a little more possible, this doesn't mean it is definitely going to take place -- its simply that mobile processors have begun to evolve more rapidly than conventional PC chips. Follow the money and the reasons for this are pretty simple -- mobile chips sales are booming; PC sales (including Macs) are not.

The nature of the landscape is changing. Once upon a time computers used to fill entire buildings, these days we're looking forward to carrying more a similar quantity of power on our wrists. In a longer-range future, computers will be around but invisible, embedded inside everyday objects: clothes, cars, kitchens.

All these implementations demand low-energy highly efficient powerful tiny chips. The future of computing is mobile.

With this in mind it makes sense that conventional PC manufacturers working on ultra-mobile Chromebooks; within this context it's no big shock that Apple's developing its own ARM-based A-series family to become ever more capable, ever more powerful 64-bit workhorses.

Powerful? Pretty much. Based on these things being custom versions of the ARM v.8 Cortex-A57 and A-53 chip designs, here's a few selected excerpts concerning the new A7 chips (which, incidentally, I correctly predicted some of the features of several months ago, including OpenGL 3.0 support):

Power in your fist

"The new A7 is Apple's first 64-bit system-on-chip, which as the company quickly clarified, means that apps in iOS 7 will also be 64-bit. The chip features graphics that are 56-times faster than those on the original iPhone. It also enables CPU performance up to 40-times faster than the original iPhone, and twice as fast as the iPhone 5's A6. How far we've come!" Gizmodo.

"We know the processor has two general-purpose registers, two floating-point registers, more than one billion transistors and a 102mm^2 die size. In comparison, an Intel Ivy Bridge processor with four cores, a 22nm manufacturing process and 1.2 billion transistors occupy 160mm^2.

"Apple also said that it is up to twice as fast as the A6 (a dual-core part with a clock speed of up to 1.3GHz, with a 97mm^2 die area and fabbed on a 32nm process) with a 40x CPU performance compared to the original Apple iPhone. Back then, Apple used an ARM1176JZF-S from a Samsung processor, one that was underclocked by a third, and is even slower than the chip used by the Raspberry Pi." IT Portal.

There's some who think the migration to 64-bit is a little meaningless, and while I feel they make some valuable points, the new processors seem to be delivering a developer's wet dream. Take Chair's co-founder, Donald Mustard's enthusiasm for the power of this chip as a guide.

"We turned on anti-aliasing -- fullscreen anti-aliasing…It worked. It worked super-fast. Then we turned on bloom and we turned on depth of field and we turned on -- we had that dragon flying in. It was blowing flames on the screen. That dragon had four times the polycount of any console character we've ever done in Gears of War or Shadow Complex or anything like that. It had four times the texture detail, the normal map detail, all on that dragon."(Read more).


How much power do you need?

I recognize some readers may not be so impressed by these statements, made as they are by a game developer. After all, real world computing tasks require much more power for things like spreadsheets and document creation (no, they don't).

"I really do think this is a sea change. It’s a sea change from how much of a supercomputer this thing is that we’re holding in our pockets," Mustard observes.

This has taken just a few years.

Meanwhile the continued move to develop logical feature parity between iOS and the Mac continues. This will extend to the sapphire fingerprint authentication scanner used in the new iPhone -- one day this feature will be part of your MacBook series device, I'm certain of this.

So let's quickly review the evidence:

  • Right now we have A-series processors that are 40x more powerful than those included within the 2007 iPhone.
  • Apple is explicitly referring to these chips as "delivering desktop-class architecture".
  • These processors already compete with those used in some Chromebooks.
  • "We know the processor has two general-purpose registers, two floating-point registers, more than one billion transistors and a 102mm^2 die size. In comparison, an Intel Ivy Bridge processor with four cores, a 22nm manufacturing process and 1.2 billion transistors occupy 160mm^2," notes ITPortal.

This evolution has taken a few years. ]

Moore's Law would suggest we'll see even more significant developments in mobile chip design in the next two years. Chip manufacturers are highly motivated to deliver ever more sophisticated processor designs because the market demands these things. Apple is already in a position in which it competes within the sector, albeit solely for processors used inside its own devices. The money and the mass market are driving interest in this. Mobile has momentum. It's only a question of time before the processors used in mobile devices become capable of most real-world computational tasks (you'll use a PC for the rest).

Apple has another string to its bow should it decide to introduce a MacBook series replacement based on it’s a-series processors: iWork and iLife. Applications from both suites will now be made available for free to new iPhone purchasers. It's not an especially imaginative leap to see them being made available to new iPad purchasers once these are introduced. They're also available as online apps to iCloud accounts. That's a growing marketshare for Apple's own productivity suite. This Mac/iOS suite is an immediate sho-in for any hybrid devices the company may choose to deploy.

Already in the labs?

So what do we have?

We have a fast-evolving processor platform that matches market need and that delivers good power and good battery efficiency. We have a productivity suite that works across all Apple devices and through browsers. We have operating system features that match on both platforms. We have a clear road map for future improvement in the chips, and we have market demand for products using these chips -- making them cheap to produce.

We also know that iOS is based on OS X, which makes it highly probably OS X could run natively on these processors. (Don’t ignore Apple's moves in recent years to refine OS X for lower disk space and higher capability).

With all this in mind I'd be very surprised if Macs running on ARM-based processors weren't already in Apple's R&D departments. As the evolution of these technologies continues the performance difference between these processors (Intel/iOS) should reduce, at least as regards most mass market computing needs.

Given the rapid evolution of the processor in conjunction with the fact that Apple's two operating systems both share the same core OS, kernel, 64-bit architecture and IDE. It's surely logical they will eventually share the same chip. Any such migration won't be immediate, I don't think we're "there" yet; but that rumored 13-inch iPad may prove a step in that direction. Oh, and one more thing: Will Apple really call these things "Macs"?

Google+? If you're one of those who likes to use social media and also happen to be a Google+ user, why not join AppleHolic's Kool Aid Corner community and join the conversation as we pursue the spirit of the New Model Apple?

Got a story? Drop me a line via Twitter or in comments below and let me know. I'd like it if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when these items are published here first on Computerworld.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon