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3 Things You Need to Know About Apple's A11 Bionic Chip

By Ashraf Eassa - Sep 13, 2017 at 9:00AM

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It's a beast, and it'll do great things for the new iPhones.

On Tuesday, Apple (AAPL 0.17%) unveiled its new lineup of smartphones – the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X (pronounced "iPhone 10"). At the heart of these new devices is a brand-new applications processor that Apple calls the A11 Bionic (not "Fusion"), which succeeds last year's A10 Fusion processor.

Let's go over everything you need to know about this impressive new chip, and what it adds to Apple's most important product line.

Apple's iPhone X.

Image source: Apple.

Six cores

With the A10 Fusion, Apple introduced what it calls "Fusion" technology. That chip had four processor cores: two "high-performance" cores, and two "high-efficiency cores." The advantage was twofold: It delivered improved performance on apps that needed it, but when only lightweight tasks were running on the phone, it could power down the more power-hungry, high-performance cores, resulting in less battery drain.

With the A11 Bionic, Apple takes another step forward.

The A11 Bionic has six processor cores -- two high-performance cores (25% faster than the ones in the A10 Fusion) and four high-efficiency cores (70% faster than the ones in the A10 Fusion), and all six cores can be used simultaneously.

Now, I doubt Apple's intention here was to just stuff six cores into a phone to win multi-core benchmarks; instead, apps and background tasks can be intelligently scheduled onto the appropriate cores so that power efficiency is maximized.

With the A10 Fusion, if a user is running an app but the phone also has some lightweight background tasks to perform, the lightweight cores would be shut down, so all tasks would run on the high-performance cores -- hardly the most efficient solution.

Now, in that case, the performance-sensitive app can run on one or two (depending on its needs) high-performance cores, while the lightweight tasks can be handled by the high-efficiency cores.

Custom Apple graphics processor

We already knew that Apple planned to move to an in-house graphics processor design thanks to commentary from jilted supplier Imagination Technologies (NASDAQOTH: IGNMF), but the British semiconductor company suggested Cupertino's new processor wouldn't arrive until the 2018 iPhone cycle.

Well, that turned out to be wrong.

Apple says that the A11 Bionic includes a custom-designed graphics processor that delivers a 30% performance bump from the Imagination-based processor in the A10 Fusion.

Apple's first in-house graphics processor looks great (it should be industry-leading) and it seems that the company is just getting started -- expect big things on this front going forward.

Apple Neural Engine

Props to Mark Gurman with Bloomberg for reporting on the Apple Neural Engine several months back. As it turns out, the Apple Neural Engine is in the new iPhone and, moreover, is a piece of silicon that's integrated directly onto the A11 Bionic chip.

Apple says that it's used for the Face ID facial recognition in the new phones, though Bloomberg's report suggested that it could handle other tasks, like speech recognition and even the predictive keyboard calculations currently handled by the CPU.

The company claims that the Apple Neural Engine can process 600 billion operations per second, a figure that is sure to grow in coming iterations of the A-series processors.

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