Analyzing rumors and speculation surrounding Apple's 2013 iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C systems-on-a-chip, memory, NAND flash capacity, and more
If Apple holds to pattern, we're in the tock year of their tick tock hardware release schedule. That means that while we may not get any exciting new external designs, we should be in for some amazing new internals, including the system-on-a-chip, storage, radios, cameras, and other components. Faster. Better. Stronger. At least for the iPhone 5S. The iPhone 5C will likely be the exception that proves the rule, becoming the less expensive option by saving all its changes for the outside. So what will all that translate into when the silicon hits our hands?
iPhone 5S: Going Rogue
Apple started designing their own custom processors with the Apple A4 system-on-a-chip (SoC) for the original iPad in 2010. They brought that SoC to the the iPhone 4 later the same year. It sported an ARM Cortex-A8 CPU, a PowerVR SGX 535 GPU, and 512MB of RAM fabricated at 45nm, along with some performance enhancements supplied by Instrisity, a company Apple later bought. With the iPad 2 in 2011, Apple introduced the dual-core Apple A5 SoC. It upped the ante to a ARM Cortex-A9, a PowerVR SGX543MP2 GPU, and 512MB of RAM, and the iPhone 4S got it later that year as well. The Apple A5 was originally fabricated at 45nm but Apple reduced it to 32nm in 2012 for the updated iPad 2, Apple TV 3, and iPod touch 5. They also added a quad-core PowerVR SGX543MP4 and introduced the Apple A5X for the Retina iPad 3.
For the Apple A6 SoC in the 2012 iPhone 5, instead of sticking with the Cortex A9 or moving on the new ARM A15, they did some more aggressive, and a lot more impressive. They licensed the ARM v7s instruction set and rolled something uniquely their own. It was a 32nm CMOS dual-core Apple processor -called Swift - that could run from between 800MHz and 1.2GHz. Likewise, instead of going with the dual-core PowerVR SGX543MP2 graphics chip found in the iPhone 4S, or the giant quad-core PowerVR SGX543MP4 found in the iPad 3, Apple went with the triple-core PowerVR SGX543MP3 GPU. And they topped it all off with 1GB of RAM. The iPad 4 later got the Apple A6X with a quad-core PowerVR SGX543MP4 GPU.
With the Apple A7, we'll likely see a second generation Swift processor, benefitting from everything Apple learned from the first, and the advancements they've made since then. Like Intel's Haswell on the Mac, that could mean less of a speed boost and more of an efficiency boost, allowing the iPhone 5S to do more while slurping less power. Let's face it, the iPhone 5 is plenty fast enough for what most people do most of the time on mobile. It's battery life that still causes the grief. If Apple and their fab can reduce the die size down below 32nm, that would help a great deal as well.
The only exception to this might be graphics. iOS 7 is built on a gaming-style physics and particle engine. All those gaussian blur shaders come at a price, however. Apple has stuck with PowerVR graphics processors up until now, and while they could always get into custom GPUs the way they've gotten into custom CPUs, PowerVR has their Series 6 graphics core ready and waiting. Codenamed Rogue, they're OpenGL 4.x compliant, and no doubt offer other advantages.
One of the biggest strengths of the Apple A-series is their Image Signal Processor (ISP). Thanks to that little miracle worker, the iPhone 5 was able to produce better balanced, better looking photos than its physical camera would otherwise allow. It's what let the year-old iPhone 5 outshoot the newer, bigger, optically image stabilized (OIS) cameras in competing phones when it came to general purpose, every day photography. We'll imagine the iPhone 5S camera in a separate post, but it's more than likely the Apple A7 will include a just as good, if not substantially better ISP this time around.
Rumors of Apple testing 64-bit chipsets have made the rounds recently as well. Whether that means 64-bit CPUs, GPUs, or both is unclear, as is whether they were only tests or something meant for actual production. On the desktop, 64-bit architecture allowed for much higher amounts of addressable memory, which allowed for much bigger images and videos to be processed. What bigger bites, rather than faster bites, mean for mobile is less obvious.