Next iPhone's A5 CPU: Enough reason to upgrade?

Hardware may exceed iOS capabilities for the first time, argues expert

Apple's next iPhone will pack the company's newest A5 processor, but the additional horsepower won't be a major upgrade motivator unless Apple pulls some high-powered apps from its own pocket, an iPhone expert said.

The new iPhone, which most analysts have said will ship in September, will be powered by the A5, the same processor that runs the iPad 2, said Aaron Vronko, CEO of Rapid Repair, a repair shop and do-it-yourself parts supplier for the iPhone, iPod and iPad.

Vronko based his bet that the A5 will make its way into the next iPhone on Apple's history of keeping its smartphone and tablet lines in sync. Last year, Apple stuck the A4 -- the first of its own designs -- into the original iPad, then several months later dropped it into the iPhone 4.

Apple used the A5 in the iPad 2 that launched last March.

Like the A4, the A5 is based on an ARM Cortex design; the latter, however is a dual-core processor built on the Cortex A9 that runs at 1Ghz, said Vronko.

But Vronko suspects Apple may throttle down the A5. "There's more power than they need," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they took it down to 800Mhz or 900Mhz, just to extend the battery."

The reason Vronko believes Apple will sacrifice processor speed to lengthen battery life is that with a dual-core processor, the iPhone hardware will finally surpass the needs of iOS and its applications.

"There aren't really any applications that have exhausted the current hardware," said Vronko. "Apple is the guardian of processor cycles, and with their minimalist APIs, the software hasn't moved up to challenge the hardware."

As Vronko said, Apple has jealously guarded the performance of the iPhone. Last year, for example, it debuted multitasking -- the ability to run multiple programs simultaneously -- in iOS 4, but limited it to a small number of tasks, including audio play, voice over IP (VoIP) and location services.

"For years, the hardware has been getting faster, and with the next iPhone, it will be better than the software," Vronko said.

Because Apple has not yet released an SDK (software developers kit) for iOS 5 -- it's expected to do so early next month at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference -- the only apps Vronko expects to see at launch that really take advantage of the A5 will be Apple's own. Minus a slew of apps that leverage the A5's power, any promised speed increase could be a moot point to customers.

And that could dampen enthusiasm among the faithful, many of whom have upgraded their iPhone annually.

"This may be the first time that an upgrade isn't compelling," Vronko said. "Before this, there have been pretty good reasons to get a new iPhone. But people who already own the iPhone 4 may not see a whole lot of reasons to run out and get an iPhone 5."

Apple's yearly advances have been noteworthy. In 2008, Apple debuted the iPhone 3G, the first to run on faster 3G mobile networks. A year later, the iPhone 3GS boosted performance and added a better camera. In 2010, the iPhone 4 boasted a revamped higher-resolution display and a second camera for FaceTime video calling.

"Maybe some of the first-party apps will require that [A5's] horsepower," Vronko said. "That's what will tell the story at launch." On his wish list: a full version of GarageBand for the iPhone.

"There will always be people maniacal enough to get the upgrade every year," said Vronko. "But this time around, I'm not sure that there will be as many."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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