Apple unveiled the iPhone 8 and X models Tuesday, and much of the discussion today is around the high price of the flagship model — up to $1,149.
What’s been largely lost is that this generation of iPhone brings with it a big shift in the silicon design that powers Apple’s AAPL, -1.35% smartphones. With the new models, the company is using in-house-designed processors almost exclusively.
The iPhone 8 and X demonstrate Apple’s dominance in product and silicon development. The smartphones’ platform, combining the operating system, hardware development, product implementation and application ecosystem, gives the company a significant advantage over any player in the Android market.
Qualcomm QCOM, -0.28% can compete from a system-on-chip (SoC) design and performance perspective, but it doesn’t have the ability to enforce changes in Android or how its partners use Snapdragon processors.
Google GOOG, +0.39% GOOGL, +0.50% has fostered a larger, more open and lower-cost operating system and environment for the masses, but it struggles to push partners to build flagship products and to keep operating-system updates frequent (which improve performance, add features and keep us secure).
Companies including Samsung SSNLF, +6.33% and LG LGEIY, +0.00% must depend on the road maps of Google, ARM, Qualcomm and others to create a product that can compete with the best from Apple.
The slow, but methodical, progression of Apple from a silicon buyer to a silicon builder has created an organization that depends on few and dominates most. With continued investment in these areas, building the fastest (or close to it) and most efficient processors will give Apple an advantage over the phone, tablet, wearables and connected devices markets for years to come.
The Apple A11 Bionic feature unveiled Tuesday is an SoC that integrates standard processing cores, graphics, an image processor, a motion processor and even a new neural engine to aid in face-recognition technology.
Primary processing is driven by a custom-built six-core design that uses the common ARM architecture found in nearly all other smartphones and tablets. Apple customizes its design beyond the ARM-provided options that many Android phones use.
By integrating a set of four high-efficiency cores for sleep states and light tasks such as email and messaging, Apple claims to improve performance over the A10 Fusion used in the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus by 70% without decreasing battery life. Considering the A10 processor used only two high-efficiency cores (rather than the four used on new processor), that claim should be easy to meet. The new A11 has two cores for high-performance work loads (gaming, machine learning) that Apple claims are 25% faster than the iPhone 7.
Qualcomm, ARM under the gun
Apple’s custom-processor designs make for a complex architectural comparison between phones, but the importance of the performance cannot be understated. Since going the custom-design route, Apple has dominated Qualcomm and other ARM designs in single-threaded performance, the metric generally associated with user experience, responsiveness and interaction.
Essentially, better single-core and thread performance gives the phone the feeling of going faster, even if it is slower in more complex tasks. Apple, more so than any other vendor, focuses on the consumer experience, so the processor design matches the company’s philosophy.
The A11 processor found in the iPhone 8 and iPhone X marks the first time Apple is using a custom-built graphics core in an SoC. Previously, Apple had a license with Imagination Technologies, but it was announced in April that Apple intended to abandon its long-running relationship to pursue its own designs.
Though the longtime mobile-graphics designer has threatened Apple with lawsuits over intellectual property, Apple has the resources and finances to retain some of the top talent in mobile graphics. The result is a graphics system that will be dissected thoroughly by external interests but that Apple claims will improve gaming and graphics performance over the A10 from the iPhone 7 by 30%.
Charting its own future
Building its own graphics core, rather than depending on an external design, enables Apple to pinpoint future technological advances and build a complete system of processors to handle work loads the company feels will be critical to future devices’ success.
Apple mentioned machine learning and augmented reality as two of the key tenets of the iPhone 8 and X. Building a complex SoC like the Apple A11 Bionic is a difficult task, and to better extract performance efficiency (which is crucial for mobile devices that have limited peak power consumption), having control over all aspects of the architecture and design are critical. Qualcomm has levied this for years by combining resources of processors, graphics, image-signal processors and DSPs (digital-signal processors) into easily addressable software packages for developers.
Even the new flagship feature, FaceID, requires custom hardware and processing in the form of a neural engine capable of 600 billion operations per second. Last month, Android processor-provider Qualcomm went on a press tour demonstrating its own implementations of facial recognition and depth sensing in an attempt to undercut Apple’s ability to feign creation of the technology.
FaceID will use the use the most complex set of cameras, sensors and infrared light emitters (which are invisible to the naked eye but useful for measuring faces for the phone), and the computing power required to accurately and quickly analyze and validate those measurements is exceedingly high. The ability for Apple to now leverage a custom central processor, custom graphics processor and even custom image processor gives it an advantage over previous iPhones as well as most of the Android market.
It has been confirmed through Apple’s specifications that the iPhone 8 and X will use the same split-design for cellular connectivity as the iPhone 7. Some regions and carriers will have LTE modems powered by Intel INTC, +0.75% while others will continue to integrate the Qualcomm option, despite the ongoing (and heating up) legal battle between Apple and Qualcomm. On the iPhone 7 it was generally accepted by the media through performance and battery testing that the Intel modem was the lesser of the two options. But Apple appears to be willing to sacrifice at least some of its phone’s perfection to hedge bets against the connectivity giant that is Qualcomm.
Other new technologies that Apple is implementing into one or both of its new phones includes Qi wireless charging (the ability to set the phone on a surface and recharge without plugging in a cable) and an OLED screen (offering much darker blacks and higher contrast).
Both have existed on competing smartphones for several generations, though their adoption by Apple brings them to the forefront of noteworthy features. By going with Qi, a wireless-charging standard that has existed since 2009, rather than its own proprietary implementation, Apple is enabling the accessory ecosystem to ignite and expand. The edge-to-edge OLED screen on the iPhone X gives it an other-worldly appearance. Still, many would argue that the Galaxy Note 8 offers a better combination of brightness, screen size and bezel implementation.
Ryan Shrout is the founder and lead analyst at Shrout Research, and the owner of PC Perspective. Follow him on Twitter @ryanshrout.