It's pretty clear that the introduction of the iPad in 2010 marked a turning point in the computer industry – one where consumers began to pivot from buying PCs to tablets. As Apple CEO Tim Cook was quick to point out during Tuesday's press event, the company has sold over 170 million iPads to date. Various analyst reports over the past year have pointed to tablets being on the brink of overtaking PCs in sales.
The new A7 processor in Apple's latest tablets and phones will help that shift even more. At first glance, this is nothing new. Every processor generation ends up being faster and more energy efficient in some way or another, so it's rare that a new CPU itself ends up being news outside of hardcore PC enthusiast circles.
But the A7 is different. In the iPhone 5S, the A7 is basically overkill; there's only so much power a device with a 4in 1,136 x 640-pixel display needs. On a tablet, though, the chip will come into its own. On paper, it's a 1.3GHz dual-core processor based on ARM's 28-nanometre ARMv8 architecture, with a new 64-bit instruction set, wider registers, and a larger cache – features that give it an edge over even Qualcomm's latest 2.27GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor.
In terms of graphics performance, Anandtech found the A7 contained a PowerVR G6430 GPU that supports OpenGL ES version 3.0, which Apple is claiming to be twice as fast as the prior generation iPad 4. We'll see when we get the two of them side by side, although we've already done plenty of benchmarking with the iPhone 5S and found it to be a stellar performer. And there's also a companion M7 coprocessor that handles sensor input, which frees up the A7 to do other tasks, or just rest and conserve battery life.
There are some limitations apparent as well. Notably, the A7 can only address a maximum of 4GB of RAM, which is usually what 32-bit desktop processors are limited to, not 64-bit – though Apple hasn't revealed how much memory the iPad Air has yet. But Apple's move to 64-bit architecture so early on at least phones, if not tablets, is months ahead of other vendors, as ARM's chief marketing officer said in an interview two weeks ago – and even 32-bit mode flies on the A7, as we've already found.
So the A7 is a huge bump. Even though the iPad 4 was already quite capable – enough to snag it a full five stars and a Best Buy award in our review last year – the A7 promises more. In our hands-on with the iPad Air, we’ve already seen what it can do just with existing apps. Sascha Segan tried out Star Walk, one of my favourite iPad apps, and found that it could process camera and accelerometer data while redrawing star maps as quickly as he could move the tablet around in the air, with zero lag. But given a 470 gram tablet possessing a huge, better-than-full-HD display, that's just the beginning of what developers can accomplish with this slate.
A 64-bit beast
So what's the big deal about 64-bit architecture? For now, on tablets, it's a buzzword. But as new apps which are optimised for the A7 begin to appear, you'll see the rewards in terms of performance. iOS 7 is already 64-bit-aware, and as a result will run more smoothly, with better multitasking, on the iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina Display. During the keynote, Apple's highlighting of its new desktop Maps application elicited a few chuckles in our office, thanks to the company's less-than-stellar history with coding its own GPS navigation apps. But you could see the 3D flyovers and incredible satellite views work at a level of detail previously unknown on tablet PCs.
Then there's the matter of content creation – that activity which pundits claim is ill-suited to the tablet form factor, and yet so many people are already doing this on iPads anyway. Today, most creative professionals stick with desktop PCs for processing photos, HD video, 3D modelling, and 24-bit/192kHz audio tracks. However, that could very well change as 64-bit versions of video editing and audio recording apps gain the ability to run dozens of plug-ins and keep greater chunks of content in memory. GarageBand's newfound ability to record 32 tracks of audio on a 64-bit iPad is one example, and take a look at the character modelling you can already do with Autodesk's 123D Creature.
One of the things which is both appealing and limiting about the iPad is how you use one application at a time on it. There's no windowed OS, so flipping back and forth between apps can become tiresome. But as the iPad gains power, developers can embed more of the extra features you'd normally need from multiple apps; musicians are already skirting around this problem with Audiobus. I'm pretty sure Apple won't ever add windows to iOS, because that's what Macs are for, and a 9.7in display isn't ideal for viewing many windows at once.
On the gaming front, I'm probably an outlier. I'll always miss a dedicated hardware controller, as I don't like the lack of visceral feedback from a display, or the way on-screen controls occupy screen real estate and reduce the size of the game window itself. But the A7 enables the iPad to run console quality games in a way no iOS device could before, with Infinity Blade III being the earliest example. And as the iPad's skyrocketing popularity as a gaming platform indicates, not everyone feels the way I do about hardware controls.
All told, the A7 marks a turning point in the iPad's evolution, just as the introduction of the iPad itself was one for the computer industry as a whole. Just give it – and the thousands of third-party developers out there – a little time.