Understanding Apple – iPhone 5, A Techie’s Take

Malcolm is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network -- entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.

The world of gadgets is an arms race. Each manufacturer needs to continually add new capabilities – both hardware and software – to keep ahead of the competition. While most improvements are ones that the consumer can see and touch, techies always delight in the more esoteric internal details.

Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) is holding a press conference today (Sept. 12) where they will be launching the new iPhone 5. This will take on not only Google Android phone, but now Microsoft’s new WP8 phones such as the Nokia Lumia 920.

Fellow fool Evan Niu covers well the most likely new features, here I will address more technical issues. While most customers may not be particularly interested in some of these details (A5 vs A5X vs Snapdragon – who cares?) they most definitely ARE interested in the results. It is internal specs such as processors that drive the end user experience. If the scrolling is sluggish and the display redraws in dribbles, then the user is not happy and all other features are not worth much.

Most important concept

The most important concept to keep in mind in all this is that of tradeoffs. All designs on anything are a matter of tradeoffs. If you want a bigger car then you will have worse gas mileage and you will have to pay more. If you want a faster computer then you will have to pay more and it will (most likely) use more electricity. Thus, all decisions about hardware features require tradeoffs; the most important “costs,” for a mobile device, are:

  • Price
  • Size
  • Weight
  • Power consumption

So, if you want to put in a more powerful processor (CPU) you will pay in cost, and usually in power consumption. (The latter may actually not be a cost if the more powerful CPU is produced on a more advanced production method, i.e. smaller transistor technology, which would actually reduce power consumption, though increase price more radically.)

Size is an obvious factor in terms of screen size. Small is usually better for a phone. Smaller ones are easier to carry. On the other hand, smaller size means smaller screen, and some people want a larger screen. It’s obvious that you cannot have both. Therefore screen size and overall size are a typical trade-off. There are as well, however, other items that affect the size of the product that perhaps are a little less obvious. The biggest one is the battery. A very large proportion of the size of a mobile phone is taken up by the battery.

There are also tradeoffs in weight. Again the most obvious two items here are the size of the screen, and even more, the battery. The battery makes up an enormous proportion of the weight. So, any time that you increase the electrical demands of the system, you will increase the required battery size, thus increasing both sizes of product and perhaps more importantly, the weight. When Apple went to the retina display on the new iPad, the depth of the product went from 8.8mm to 9.4 mm, and the weight from 601g to 652g. Most of this was from the battery that increased a whopping 70% in capacity.

From these facts we can see that the internal techie specs are important. They affect the overall user experience dramatically. Apple has always prized size above all else, so it will be interesting to see what tradeoffs they make in the new iPhone 5. Remember, they are always working to develop the latest technology, especially in areas such as batteries, so sometimes they can increase the available power in the battery without increasing the weight.

CPU – the brains of the beast

<img src="/media/images/user_13421/apple_a5_chip_large.jpg" />

The central processing unit, or CPU, is the “brains” of any computer system. Actually, modern computers have two brains, the CPU and GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). The CPU runs the overall system and most of the program logic, the GPU runs the displays and most of the image decoding (including video). In high end computers, these two units are separate. On cheaper computers and on most mobile devices, the GPU is on the same physical chip as the CPU. This is called SoC or System on a Chip.

The importance of the GPU cannot be understated. In a revealing report on the iPad 2, text site and AnandTech said the following:

The GPU side of the A5 is really what's most exciting. As we mentioned in our iPad 2 GPU Performance analysis, the A5 includes a dual-core… SGX 543MP2. In our earlier article we showed the SGX 543MP2 easily beating both an iPad 1 and the Tegra 2 based Motorola Xoom.

Although somewhat dated, this paragraph illustrates the importance of the GPU. In the new iPad, because the new retina display has so much higher resolution, and therefore so many more pixels, Apple had to change the chip they call the A5X. This features an unchanged CPU, but a beefed up GPU, the quad-core PowerVR SGX543MP4. This perfectly illustrates how the change in one part of hardware requires a change in another. Also the retina display required a larger battery as noted above.

So techies will be waiting to see what chip they put in the new iPhone. Will the larger screen, that everybody expects, require an upgrade to the A5X chip or will they come in with a brand-new chip altogether? Rumors have it that the new iPhone 5 will be extremely thin. Does this mean that the battery will be smaller yet? Perhaps they can do this with a brand-new chip with newer fab technology? Qualcomm’s (NASDAQ: QCOM) newest Snapdragon processor is built on 28nm technology instead of the new A5, which is only on 32nm. This is important since smaller technologies get more transistors per square millimeter, therefore they are smaller and closer together, therefore they require less power, and thus a smaller battery.

So this is why the little internal details that are of such interest to the techies, in the end, influence the overall product and the overall user experience. And this is why we techies wait with anticipation for these fine internal details.


Malcolm Manness has a Masters degree in Computer Science, and has worked for 14 years in development, technical publications and software quality assurance. He has been investing for 20 years. Currently, he does writing, and FileMaker Pro programming on contract.

His short fiction can be found (under pseudonym J. Seunnasepp) at http://50centflash.com/.

==== Understanding Apple series

You may love Apple and their products, or hate them to the core, but you cannot deny that Apple now has the highest market cap of any company, their products are trend setters, and currently they are trading at rather low multiples, especially regarding forward earnings.

Warren Buffet has the maxim: “Invest in what you know!” So, for those who want a unique perspective on Apple’s success, I have a series of articles Understanding Apple. I hope you will find them helpful and provocative.

Let me know what you think.


Fellow fool Evan Niu : most likely new features

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