The iPhone 5′s Greatest Inside Story: Chipmaking Maturation For Apple

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The iPhone 5 brings a lot to the table, but a lot of its changes lie under the hood away from prying eyes. Or, at least, away from those eyes until Friday when it’ll get opened up by a host of folks, including iFixit.com’s perennial new Apple hardware tear-down. The iPhone 5 has already given up maybe its greatest secret, however: A custom-designed A6 system-on-a-chip that represents the fulfillment of an acquisition made almost half a decade ago.

The A6, unlike its predecessors the A5 and A4, isn’t simply a rebranded ARM design with minor tweaks. Instead, as Anand Shimpi of AnandTech discovered, it’s Apple’s own creation, based on an ARM blueprint — which it also licensed in addition to specific generic processors — but bearing much more of Apple’s own direct input. In other words, Apple is finally emerging as a chipmaker in its own right, and this could have a huge impact on device performance and consumer-facing features in its smartphones and tablets going forward.

I discussed the changes in a call with iFixit co-founder and IEEE Consumer Electronics Society member Kyle Wiens, who was excited about the new direction and its potential implications for users and Apple hardware.

“We’ve been wondering for a long time whatever came of Apple’s acquisition of P.A. Semi, so this is many, many years of strategy and development for Apple finally bearing fruit,” he explained. “And the critical thing here I think is probably power savings. Apple really knows, and has known for a long time, that cutting power [demands] was the most important thing. And I think Apple has been even more focused on that than even ARM has been.”

Battery has long been one of the iPhone’s major advantages over competition from Android handset makers, but the new iPhone 5 had a lot of new sources of power draw to contend with, as well as a slimmer profile within which to put the battery. There’s a new, larger screen, as well as LTE connectivity and software features like Passbook that use always-on location monitoring to serve up geo-fenced feature offerings. That combination of requirements is likely what drove Apple to move into its own design, allowing it to push the envelope on processor power consumption. And now that it’s moved into custom chip design, Wiens definitely sees that approach spreading to other areas of its mobile business.

“I think this is a long-term strategy, and that they’ve been at this for a long time,” he said. “I think they realized when they released the iPhone that this was a new form factor and that they were going to have to have a long-term processor strategy for it, and that ARM was a nice framework, but that this was going to take them in direction that was different from what processors had historically been designed for.” In other words, Apple has long known that a new kind of computing required an entirely new kind of chip, and only now is it really beginning to fulfill that vision.

Wiens points out that if you look at the iPhone 5′s highlights, there’s only really one place power savings could come from, and that’s the processor. Apple’s approach then not only provides the immediate benefit of making a more powerful device smaller and lighter without sacrificing battery performance, but also gives it a considerable future proprietary advantage to hold over the competition, especially if it keeps improving on its initial chip design, which seems likely, given it has the talent not only of P.A. Semi, but also of Intrinsity, an ARM processor design company it picked up in 2010.

Apple has always been about creating the perfect union between hardware and software in order to deliver the best possible user experience. Its emergence as a mobile chip designer in its own right only means that integration will become even more seamless in future devices, pushing the boundaries not only of what those gadgets can do, but also of the energy cost of doing them.