Why Apple Introduced a 64-Bit Processor, Simplified

It's been about a month since Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) debuted its new iPhone 5s running a 64-bit processor, and there's been a lot of back and forth about the significance of such a chip in mobile devices. To shed a little light on the topic, let's take a look at what exactly a 64-bit processor is, its possible benefits, and its impact on Apple's mobile future.

It's all marketing talk, until it's not
After the iPhone 5s launched, Qualcomm's senior vice president and chief marketing officer, Anand Chandrasekher, said this about the 64-bit processor: "I think they are doing a marketing gimmick. There's zero benefit a consumer gets from that." But this week, Qualcomm retreated, saying Chandrasekher's comments were "inaccurate."

His comments weren't really that far off base, however -- at least not right now. To understand what Chandrasekher was getting at, we need to understand what a 64-bit processor is, and how it works.

Think of the standard 32-bit mobile processor as a guy sitting down to have a conversation with three people. Our conversationalist could handle several comments from three people, process what they say, and respond to their questions fairly well. But let's say that we add 20 people to the table. He now has to handle conversations and questions from 23 individuals. He's going to get overwhelmed, and he won't be able to respond as well as he could with just three people.

Instead of conversations, computer processors talk in integers and, like the man in our example, they can only take in and process so much at a time. While a 32-bit processor can only handle a chunk of calculations from up to 4GB of memory, a 64-bit processor can handle a nearly infinite amount of integers -- lots of conversations, from lots of sources.

The beef Qualcomm's exec had with Apple's new 64-bit chip is that the iPhone 5s only has 1GB of RAM -- so being able to process data from more than 4GB of memory is essentially a non-issue.

But that's not to say that Apple's 64-bit A7 chip is insignificant. The move is part of a larger strategy of Apple's to position its mobile operating system and its flagship device for the future of mobile. iOS 7 was revamped to handle 64-bit hardware, a move that will likely make a difference in the company's iPads before it matters much in the iPhone. The iPad possesses much more processing power and memory, and would likely benefit from a 64-bit processor sooner than the iPhone will. But adding the chip to the 5s positions future iterations of the device to handle more complex apps, and encourages developers to create apps that can benefit from the increased processing capabilities.

For now, Apple investors should think of the 64-bit technology as an investment in the company's mobile future. Apple is positioning itself to benefit from a changing trend, and this decision sets Apple up to use similar technology in more powerful future iPads and, eventually, iPhones with more than 4GB of memory. So, while it may not mean Apple has surpassed all other smartphones with its processing power right now, it does mean that it's one step ahead of the competition

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  • Report this Comment On October 10, 2013, at 9:25 PM, datamunger wrote:

    The power a 64-bit architecture is not only in its ability to access memory beyond 4GB but its ability to pack more punch in each instruction.

    Twice the number of micro-code operations can be packed into a 64-bit word.

    For example, two 32-bit numbers can be loaded into the 64-bit memory in one cycle, multiplied, and loaded into memory in the next cycle. With an A6 or a 32-bit architecture, two cycles would be needed to fetch the data, and two more to store it.

    I am sure that Apple optimized its IO 7 compiler to take advantage of this.

  • Report this Comment On October 10, 2013, at 9:33 PM, zippero wrote:

    The last sentence is incorrect: "So, while it may not mean Apple has surpassed all other smartphones with its processing power right now, it does mean that it's one step ahead of the competition."

    The iPhone 5S already far surpasses any other smartphone out there and is more than twice as fast as the Galaxy S4, according to Anandtech.com (http://www.anandtech.com/show/7335/the-iphone-5s-review/5)

  • Report this Comment On October 10, 2013, at 9:35 PM, zippero wrote:
  • Report this Comment On October 10, 2013, at 10:12 PM, makelvin wrote:

    It is puzzling why people like to write about things they know very little about. Clearly from this article, the author have very little understanding about microprocessor and yet he like to imply that he know so much that he needs to "simplify" for others.

    As others here have already pointed out, having a 64 bit processor is a lot more than simply having access to more than 4GB of memory. Having a 64 bit instead of 32 bit allows much wider data bandwidth for the processor to process and manipulate data.

    Think of a two-lane highway vs. a four-lane highway. A four-lane highway can have twice a much traffic as a two-lane highway without getting traffic jam. A 64 bit processor is capable of processing and moving twice as much data as a 32 bit processor with the same number of clock cycle and capable of up to twice the processing performance. Another way to look at it is that the 64 bit is capable of processing the same amount of work as 32 bit at about half the clock cycle and thereby reducing power usage.

    It is always a good idea for the author to go back and write about something he actually knows something about instead of posing as someone he is not.

  • Report this Comment On October 10, 2013, at 10:23 PM, normgarry wrote:

    Even with 64-bit CPU and more RAM, all the components will still draw from the same resources. 64 Bit or not, it's gonna be a LONG LONG LONG time before you see an iPhone with 4GB or more of RAM, and without a bigger screen, it's all for nought.

  • Report this Comment On October 10, 2013, at 10:50 PM, bcweir wrote:

    It wasn't that long ago that Intel scoffed at AMD's first consumer 64 bit processor, even as their server level Itanium chip couldn't even execute 32 bit code or run Windows programs or any 32 bit code. For the next four years, AMD mopped the floor with Intel.

    Don't laugh at 64 bit processors, Chandrasekher. From a consumer perspective, YOU are about ten years behind the times.

  • Report this Comment On October 10, 2013, at 10:52 PM, cdkeli wrote:

    The point that is failed to be made by both the author, commenters, and the Anandtech benchmarkers concerns the ultimate power-drain of the device and therefore the average battery-life the phone user should expect. Unfortunately, battery capacity is not increasing at nearly the rate Moore's law predicts for memory and certainly not at the rate CPU performance has been observed to improve.

  • Report this Comment On October 10, 2013, at 11:08 PM, JHawkinTexas wrote:

    Apple must get a good laugh out of some of these articles...I know I do.

    There are many good (detailed) articles on the A7 and the ARM 64-bit architecture and instruction set. Finding is left as an exercise for the reader.

    As others have pointed, 64-bit processors are about much more than simply accessing memory above 4 GB. Others have mentioned some of the advantages in terms of the processing efficiencies that can be gained but an area that people continually miss is the significant advantage of double precision floating point (fp) on native 64-bit architectures. A 32-bit fp number has 7 digits of accuracy while a 64-bit fp has 15-16 digits of accuracy. Why is that important? There are many applications (graphics, cryptography, and GPS navigation to name a few) that benefit significantly from the increased accuracy. Did you notice the game demo that Apple did at the keynote? The 64-bit platform is a hand-held gamer's nirvana. What is the #1 category of apps on a smartphone (not just iPhone)? Games. Of course you can do double precision on a 32-bit processor...but it's more than twice as slow.

    Trying doing a little more homework before your next article...or better yet, just stick with your automobile companies.

  • Report this Comment On October 10, 2013, at 11:35 PM, ihussaini wrote:

    I always like to view mobile technology based on the von neumann architecture + operating system + networking. Creating a better processor for a mobile device will not deliver better performance just by itself. Just like throwing more RAM into a machine doesn't necessarily make it more efficient and faster.

    My approach would be to start with a simple processor with a smaller instruction set and develop a good kernel around that. Streamline the processor to be able to execute only those instructions needed at the mobile computing level.

    There are constraints, however. You are limited by network technologies. If you stream data at set data rate, your processor is only going to be able to process it as fast as it receives data from the network. A processor can't fix latency I suppose.

    My 2 cents.

  • Report this Comment On October 10, 2013, at 11:41 PM, JoeLemon wrote:

    I stopped reading when he said "computer processors talk in integers". That showed he shouldn't be writing this article.

    The iphone uses a different OS you can't really compare that to a phone using windows or Droid. They are just comparing how long it takes to get a respond to certain tasks. The galaxy having a much bigger screen will take longer.

    bcweir, Intel had a 64-bit CPU before windows Vista. It wasn't until Windows 7 that most people had a 64-bit computer.

    64-bit uses more memory then a 32-bit app. There is a reason most desktop software is 32 bit not 64.

  • Report this Comment On October 11, 2013, at 12:44 AM, olsondavid wrote:

    Reply to JoeLemon: there's not much that's more amusing than some economist or bean counter or "analyst" trying to give a technology critique. I suspect that the author has very little experience in designing digital and analog circuit elements.

    This problem is an epidemic in the stock analyst business - rather than pay a few bucks to consult with a person who has actual expertise, they just spew nonsense like you quoted in the first line of your post.

  • Report this Comment On October 11, 2013, at 3:01 AM, skippywonder wrote:

    I know it is hard to compress technical concepts into easily understood messages, but the "conversation" analogy is probably the worst I have ever read for how a processor functions, and certainly for how it addresses memory.

  • Report this Comment On October 11, 2013, at 6:34 AM, wearable99 wrote:

    not a techie...

    I thought it was to allow msft os on the device and be driven by users desire to use msft project spark.

  • Report this Comment On October 11, 2013, at 7:16 AM, Mathman6577 wrote:

    Put it this way ... 64-bit is better than 32-bit in any electronic system. There is way too much over analysis going on about this.

  • Report this Comment On October 11, 2013, at 11:19 AM, JoeLemon wrote:

    No, in many cases 32-bit is better.

  • Report this Comment On October 11, 2013, at 7:02 PM, ihussaini wrote:

    The burning challenge for the tech industry going forward is privacy not CPUs or hard drives. If I were the CEO of pfizer, and my R&D team came up with a new drug. How do I know some punk hacker is not going to be able to get his hands on my new drug. Or someone else won't get their hands on my stock analysis and beat me to the punch.

    Maybe Apple is trying to strengthen consumer confidence by making sure Apple products are 100% Apple. No intel backdoors or whatever the latest conspiracy theory is. Personally, I think a 64-bit CPU is as about useful as a smart phone with a flexible screen or making a cell phone as thin as your library card. I would much rather want a hologram phone that recreates an image of the person I am speaking with as if they were really right there in front of me. It's more interactive

    I'm just wondering what will happen when networks are made up of stand alone devices powerful enough to connect directly without the use of any intermediary devices or technologies. Regardless of new innovations, the promise of privacy will be at the heart of consumerism.

  • Report this Comment On October 11, 2013, at 9:06 PM, JoeLemon wrote:

    How is an ARM CPU 100% apple?

    Plus ARM is a long ways away from being Intel performance.

  • Report this Comment On October 12, 2013, at 12:52 AM, ihussaini wrote:

    ARM is an architecture. The A7 is actually manufactured by Samsung. The design however belongs to Apple.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_A7

    If I employ a team of Java EE developers from ACME consulting to make a web application using the MVC pattern/architecture, would that mean Java or ACME owns my product or that somehow the product I designed is "not" 100% my own?

    In terms of privacy, there is a problem with Intel processors. No one cares about performance if your technology can't safeguard your corporate assets. You can google 3g Intel Chip and draw your own conclusions. I'm not letting Samsung off the hook either. Who knows if they haven't imbedded a backdoor in the A7 and may perhaps be selling data to the Chinese.

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