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ARM: Apple way ahead of competition on 64-bit

Apple is months ahead of other phone makers in producing 64-bit processors that run ARM's fast new ARMv8 instruction set, ARM chief marketing officer Ian Drew said this week.

"I think you'll see chips next year," he said.

When Apple launched its 64-bit A7 processor in September, many observers thought that the 64-bit aspect wouldn't matter much on a phone with less than 4GB of memory. But as we found out, the A7 is at least 33 per cent faster on photo and video tasks than last year's A6, thanks to the ARMv8 design.

"We've always said that the 32-bit mode on 64-bit is very efficient," Drew said. "Well, guess what - we've just seen some of that. It is really efficient."

More mobile devices will demand 64-bit performance in the future, especially for video editing and games, according to Drew.

"If you look at the way in which video and video editing are going, if you bring some of that big-world experience down to things like phones and tablets, 64-bit is going to make it more useful," he said.

When we tested the 64-bit iPhone 5S, trimming and preparing a video for email in the Photos app ran in nine seconds, compared with 16.4 seconds on the iPhone 5, which has a 32-bit processor.

Drew said not just physical chipbuilding, but "software" may stand in the way of other devices supporting ARM's 64-bit architectures. ARM announced its first 64-bit designs, the A53 and A57, in October 2012.

"It depends on when OEMs want to go take [64-bit chips]," he said. "It's not just about when the chips come to market. It's about when the software's going to be there, and can you handle the software and tools."

While Android's Linux kernel supports 64-bit processing, other aspects of the OS haven't yet been optimised for 64 bit, although there have been a lot of rumours that full 64-bit support will come in Android 4.4 "KitKat" at the end of this month.

Samsung and Nvidia are also working on 64-bit chips. Samsung exec Jong-Kyun Shin told the Korea Times that the company's "next smartphones" would have 64-bit processors, but "not in the shortest time." That may place Samsung's 64-bit chip in the Galaxy S5 during the first half of next year.

Nvidia announced its 64-bit "Project Denver" back in 2011, but we haven't heard much about it since. At the GPU Technology Conference in March, Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang pegged 2015 for the first 64-bit Tegra chip, although analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights thinks they may have that chip in devices by mid-2014.

Qualcomm, meanwhile doesn't seem to know what to say about 64-bit, retracting a recent statement by the company's CMO that 64-bit was a "marketing gimmick."

It sounds like Apple is at least six months ahead of the competition with its 64-bit processor. Drew said he's checked out the A7, and while it isn't a stock ARM part, it represents the 64-bit ARM world well.

"We think it's great. We love Apple," he said.