Apple's 64-bit A7 is no gimmick

New iPhone 5s processor clocks big performance leap over its predecessors, proving its 64-bitness is more than a marketing ploy

When Apple announced the iPhone 5s would be powered by a new 64-bit processor, the A7, many responded with a shrug. Conventional wisdom had it that 64-bitness in a mobile processor had no particular advantage.

But then the first real-world performance benchmarks came in, and soon most everyone changed their tune -- including the manufacturers of chip sets for competing devices. Samsung, which manufactures the A7 for Apple, recently said it would have 64-bit dices.

Generally, 64-bit processors are compared against their 32-bit counterparts in terms of the amount of memory the processor can address at once. The original hedging of bets about the value of 64-bitness in mobile revolved around this: What mobile device would need to access more than 3GB of memory?

Skepticism about the value of 64-bit mobile devices could be seen when the IDG News Service's Agam Shah talked to analysts earlier in September about the A7. Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research, dismissed the 64-bitness of the A7 as "marketing -- the ability to say you're the first to have it." Forbes wasn't impressed either, calling it all more of Steve Jobs's famed "reality distortion field" at work.

But AnandTech decided to let the numbers speak for themselves. The tech website ran its custom suite of browser benchmarks against the A7 and saw an average of a 44 percent increase in speed over the A6. The gains for the new processor were quite real, and Jean-Louis Gassée -- a former Apple exec who then developed BeOS and tried to get Apple to buy it as the core of OS X, only to see Apple turn to Jobs's Next instead -- wryly reported how the experts quickly changed their tunes when confronted with a little hard evidence.

What also helped was the way Apple complemented the presence of the processor with a fully 64-bit version of iOS and 64-bit applications to go with it -- in short, a complete 64-bit ecosystem. To Gassée, the fact it wasn't the processor alone was something else the analysts had overlooked.

Another issue that Gassée brings up is how the competition is responding -- namely, the processor makers that supply hardware for Android-powered smartphones, such as Samsung. To him, "the complexity is multiplied by Google's significantly weaker control over hardware variants," as well as the added complexity of needing to deliver an all-new, 64-bit SDK for Android.

There's no question 64-bitness is being added to Android as we speak, with Intel's Bay Trail being widely seen as one possible chip set for the platform. But Gassée's notes hint at how a proper 64-bit Android might well be an entirely new platform from the inside out. Given that Bay Trail isn't set to arrive until early 2014, that gives Google and its allied developers plenty of time to get the platform ready.

By that time, though, Apple's trailblazing for a 64-bit mobile experience may make it a hard act to follow.

This story, "Apple's 64-bit A7 is no gimmick," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.