Why a 64-bit iPhone?

When Apple introduced the iPhone 5S, it brought the first 64-bit smartphone to market – and Samsung immediately promised that it would have 64-bit in its next generation as well. But what’s the point of a 64-bit processor in a smartphone?

iPhone 5S

Well, according to the earliest reviews, the iPhone 5S went to the head of the pack when it came to burning its way through standard benchmark tests. It was quickly declared the most powerful smartphone available today.

Historically, the leading argument in favor of a 64-bit processor is the ability to access more than 4 GB of system memory, but with just 1 GB of RAM in the iPhone 5s, that’s certainly not a feature now. Maybe in 3-5 years an iPhone will ship with more than 4 GB, but that day is a ways down the road.

Still, given the options of a quad-core chip, a faster dual-core chip, or a 64-bit dual-core chip, Apple chose the more forward-looking option. There are some things that a 64-bit chip does better than a 32-bit chip, but Apple is primarily preparing the iPhone 5S for a future that’s going to be completely 64-bit.

How Macs Made the Transition

Apple already made the 64-bit transition on Macs. The first generation of Intel-based Macs were completely 32-bit machines, but the next generation of Macs, built around the Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, gave newer Macs the potential to run in 64-bit mode as well as their default 32-bit mode.

By the end of 2006, almost all Macs ran Core 2 Duo, but it wasn’t until 2009 that Apple introduced its first operating system with full 64-bit support. Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard could run on all Intel Macs and supported 64-bit operation on Core 2 Duo models. And Apple designed OS X 10.6 in such a way that it could support 32-bit and 64-bit operation simultaneously as long as a 64-bit CPU was used – even if the Mac in question was never designed to boot into 64-bit mode.

This was decidedly brilliant, because Windows forced users to make the choice: Do you want to use the 32-bit version of Windows for full compatibility or do you want to ante up for the 64-bit version and risk some of your device drivers not working? You had to pick one or the other, and Linux followed the same path.

Apple finally made OS X a completely 64-bit operating system when it released OS X 10.7 Lion in July 2011. Lion does not run on Core Solo or Core Duo systems, but Apple managed to make it boot as a 64-bit operating system even on Core 2 Duo Macs not originally designed to boot in 64-bit mode.

The iPhone’s Turn

iOS 7 does the same thing for the iPhone that OS X 10.6 did for Macs. It supports both 32- and 64-bit operation on both 32- and 64-bit hardware. And someday there will be a version of iOS that’s only 64-bit – but that day is a ways off.

Apple has established a tradition of having three different iPhone models available at the same time:

  1. The newest iPhone,
  2. The previous iPhone,
  3. And the one before that.

So today you can buy an iPhone 4S (the last model without 4G LTE and with the traditional screen size), the 5C (the iPhone 5 in a colorful plastic case), and the 5S. Of the three, only the 5S has a 64-bit chip.

Next year expect to see the 5C, 5S, and most likely an iPhone 6, which will also be a 64-bit design, perhaps one with 3-4 cores. And in 2015, the 6S will arrive, the 5C will disappear from the line, and all current models will have 64-bit processors.

That’s the earliest Apple can transition to a 64-bit only version of iOS, but then there’s the history of iOS also supporting the most recently discontinued iPhone, which in 2015 will be the 32-bit iPhone 5C, so it’s most likely that iOS 10 will arrive in 2016 as the first version of iOS that requires a 64-bit CPU, just as OS X 10.7 Lion did in the Mac world two years ago.

Why 64-bit Now?

So why did Apple introduce a 64-bit iPhone this year? So it can transition to a fully 64-bit iOS in two (and more likely three) years. People buying a 5S today will not be left behind when that happens.

And if it gives Apple bragging rights for having the most powerful smartphone for a few months, even better.

And, of course, the iPad and iPod touch will soon follow the iPhone 5S into the 64-bit future.

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