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The A7 chip transforms iPhones and iPads into personal computers

By Brian S Hall / October 25, 2013

The launch of the iPhone 5s has created a rush of excitement for users and developers. Along with clever new features, including AirDrop sharing and slow-motion video, the 5s packs some potentially game-changing hardware. While the Touch ID fingerprint sensor and the M7 “motion coprocessor” have garnered much of the early praise, it’s the A7 chip that’s likely to have the greatest lasting impact on the platform.

The A7 is a 64-bit, dual-core, 1.3GHz chip that Apple claims is twice as fast as the A6 chip found in the iPhone 5. More important than the specs is the fact that the A7 positions the iPhone, and the next generation of iPads, as legitimate alternatives to both personal computers and stand-alone gaming consoles.

Expanding the boundaries of mobile computing

Don’t be fooled by those who claim the A7 is mostly a marketing gimmick. Advantages of the A7 include more computing power, superior audio and video processing, heavy-duty number crunching and faster physics calculations. These improvements will encourage leading developers to push the envelope for smartphone applications.

When Apple formally announced the iPhone 5s, the company used ChAIR Entertainment/Epic Games and its Infinity Blade 3 game to show off the stunning graphics performance of the new chip. “With the unmatched power of the iPhone 5s and its A7 chip, we can now combine full-screen rendering effects, tons of polygons and advanced gameplay processing in one smooth package,” ChAIR Entertainment’s technical director, Geremy Mustard, said at the launch. “And we are able to do all that with almost instantaneous load times, keeping gamers immersed in the experience instead of staring at a loading screen.”

Several graphics-heavy games—once feasible only on dedicated consoles—have already been released, each leveraging the A7’s power and performance. Gaming is the most visible, but certainly not the only, purpose of the A7. The camera’s Image Signal Processor and the “Secure Enclave Processor,” which stores the Touch ID fingerprint, are both integrated into the new chip. Siri, Maps and Safari have all been recompiled for the A7, resulting in faster performance.

Outside of Apple’s own default services, developers are exploring how to take advantage of the A7 architecture to “apply effects to audio, images and video in real time.” These effects will lead to a more immersive experience for the user. In addition, the A7 offers a possible means to “sandbox” certain apps, based on security or business rules, for example. As Apple turns its focus on the enterprise market, this could prove useful.

Faster and better — eventually

This is not to suggest that apps and computing will improve overnight because of the A7. Though backwards-compatible with 32-bit applications, there is the possibility that some existing apps will run more slowly. As the 5s is the only iPhone with the A7 chip, developers will need to build or maintain 32-bit versions of their apps for the rest of Apple’s iPhone line-up. The standard 64-bit design is optimized for 4GB or higher of RAM.

In his detailed analysis of the chip, programmer Mike Ash claims the 64-bit A7 will improve overall performance, though far greater benefits will arrive as developers create apps designed to take full advantage of its capabilities. Apple’s surprisingly quick move to 64-bit computing on the iPhone is likely to prove a major win for Apple, users and app developers in the months and years to come.

Path toward a unified platform?

On a more provocative level, the introduction of the A7 chip has rekindled talk that Apple intends to unify the iOS and Mac OS X operating systems. Mark Shuttleworth of Canonical, which is working to merge desktop and smartphone OS versions of Ubuntu into a single codebase, said that Apple’s introduction of the 64-bit A7 processor is a “very clear signal that [Apple] will converge the iPhone and the MacBook Air.”

While possible, this seems unlikely any time soon. The iOS runs on the ARM chip series, but OS X still runs on the Intel x86 series. Nonetheless, by going with the 64-bit A7, it will be easier for developers to share code between iOS and OS X.

Possible pitfalls and barriers

Although the A7 will ultimately benefit Apple and app developers, there are some concerns. Transitioning to A7 is a daunting task, and developing for Apple’s supercharged platform may lead to apps and developer skills that are not directly transferable to Windows Phone or Android.

Such concerns are likely overstated. As iOS architect Conrad Stoll told me: “None of us developers are in any way worried about the 64-bit transition. Apple has already made this transition on desktop, and so the transition should be very easy for us to make. As more and more of the libraries we use transition over, all of our projects will eventually be built on the 64-bit instruction set.”

This is not to suggest there are no trade-offs. The Apple-specific architecture of the A7, along with it being the only 64-bit processor currently available in smartphones, could force developers to make some tough decisions when building for multiple platforms. For example, should you create an app experience that is noticeably different for iPhone versus Android or Windows Phone?

Building a game or app optimized for 64-bit processing could theoretically lead to a situation where these may look and perform, possibly even function, markedly different across devices and platforms. Combine that with new licensing options, Apple-only APIs and unique QA issues, and there is the possibility of needing staff who focus almost exclusively on iPhone 5s and other Apple A7 devices.

Desktop class in your hand

With Apple’s A7 for iPhone 5s, the future of computing has arrived. Chip giant, Qualcomm, is working on an equivalent 64-bit chip for mobile devices. Non-Apple smartphones will offer their own 64-bit processors over the next year or so. Samsung is already working on a new 64-bit “Exynos 6″ mobile processor, which should prove a boon to the industry.

In a few short years, smartphones have transformed into full-fledged computers and gaming consoles. Better still, no one is slowing down. These mobile devices will soon pack hardware and capabilities once found only in PCs.