When computer users think of the buzzword “64-bit”, usually the first thing that comes to mind is the Windows operating system, which comes in two flavors; 32-bit or 64-bit. Like a computer, a smartphone or tablet also has an operating system, (usually Android OS, iOS, or Windows), and to run as 64-bit, it needs a processor that is built to do so.
Up until very recently, processors in mobile devices have all been 32-bit, as have the operating systems. However, technology market research firm ABIresearch has predicted that sales of 64-bit mobile devices will exceed 1.15 billion shipped in 2018, representing a 55% market share, so this is technology that is coming fast.
The majority of smartphones and tablets run a 32-bit OS, partly due to there not being 64-bit microarchitecture to run it on in most devices. After all, the first 64-bit mobile processor and OS (Apple’s A7 and iOS) only showed up about 6 months ago, in September 2013. Even for devices that feature a 64-bit processor, Windows 8.1 has only just gotten support for 64-bit Bay Trail mobile processors (though the Surface 2 Pro could run 64-bit Windows 8.1 via an Intel i5 processor, which isn’t actually a mobile-optimized chip).
There is currently no commercially available 64-bit Android version, though with the advent of more processors capable of running one, that is likely to change by Q3 2014.
A 64-bit processor can access over 4 billion times the locations in memory as a 32-bit processor. This allows a 64-bit device to process data in larger chunks and more accurately and efficiently. While a 32-bit processor capped out at being able to access 4 GB of memory, we are unlikely to see 64-bit processors exceed their memory cap in mobile devices for many, many years.
The primary reason for switching to a 64-bit processor in mobile devices is the growing use of high-end multimedia. With 4K-resolution screens, streaming HD video, and more intensive mobile games appearing on the market, smartphones and tablets need that extra memory accessibility to efficiently run applications and their operating systems.
Here are a few of the major announced (and existing) processors that are showing up to duke it out in the 64-bit mobile arena in recent months and the coming year:
The first 64-bit processor to hit the mobile consumer market, Apple’s A7 processor took the industry a bit by surprise. Used in the iPhone 5S, iPad Air, and iPad mini Retina, the A7 brought Apple’s devices to the head of the processor pack back in September 2013 when it was released.
Apple boasted that the 1.3-1.4 GHz system-on-a-chip (SoC) is up to twice as fast and had twice the graphics power as the A7’s predecessor, the A6, thanks to its dual-core CPU and integrated GPU. It also features an image-processing unit that handles camera functions such as stabilization, color correction, and light balance.
At Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2014, Intel unveiled its Atom Z3480 “Merrifield” processor, which is based on its 22nm Silvermont microarchitecture. The dual-core Merrifield runs at 2.13 GHz, and Intel claims that it offers improved battery life as well.
The announced quad-core “Moorefield” Atom processor, to be released later this year, will build on the Merrifield but with a 2.3 GHz speed and an improved graphics processor.
These Atom processors support both Android and Windows, meaning dual-booting devices will likely appear in the consumer market soon. Intel also announced partnerships with Lenovo, Foxconn, and Asus for new Atom devices appearing in 2014.
Qualcomm meanwhile introduced its new Snapdragon 600 series of processors, which feature a whopping 8 cores and Qualcomm’s Adreno 405 GPU, making a definite statement in Apple’s direction that their dominance may be nearing an end. These chips are backward-compatible with 32-bit applications, which will make them more desirable in the near future as software begins the process of transitioning to 64-bit.
Also at MWC, Samsung executives stated that they would not be lagging behind in adopting 64-bit processors. They have confirmed that they will be developing a 64-bit Exynos chip that will be debuted later this year.
Of the more high-end companies to announce new lines of processors, GPU-extraordinaire Nvidia unveiled its 64-bit Tegra K1 SoC to great acclaim at the Consumer Electronic Showcase 2014 in January.
While initial benchmarks put it above almost all the mobile processors on the market (including edging out the Intel Haswell i5 that is used in the Surface Pro 2), many have been skeptical of its veracity due to results that appear to be skewed in the K1’s favor and haven’t been reproduced since. As well, the wattage required to power the K1 appears to be far too high for a tablet or smartphone to ever use one effectively without underclocking it.
Whether these aspersions are true or not remains to be seen when Nvidia’s new Tegra starts to show up in devices, but if it holds up to their projected benchmarks, it will be a great chip to have in a smartphone or tablet.
Semiconductor pioneer MediaTek has also announced its first high-end 64-bit SoC. The MediaTek MT6732 will sport a quad-core, 1.5 GHz ARM Cortex-A53 processor and a next-gen Mali-T670 GPU, alongside 5-in-1 combo connectivity built in.
Featuring LTE, Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi, HSPA+, TD-SCDMA, and EDGE connectivity, as well as image signal processor support for up to a 13 megapixel camera and HD video recording (1080p at 30 FPS, with H.265 and H.264 codec support for playback), this is one powerful system for higher-end mobile devices.
Expect to see it in tablets and phones starting in Q3 2014.