Inside the iPhone 5: what makes it tick

Apple's revamp of the iPhone included an overhaul of the inside too. So, what new silicon did Apple drop into the iPhone 5's chassis?

The Apple A6 chip. The combo CDMA-LTE Qualcomm chip is at the bottom.
(Credit: Apple)

A6 chip

It's faster! (Duh!) Here's a summary of what Apple said: "Up to twice as fast, compared with the [iPhone 4S' A5 chip] ...The A6 chip also offers graphics performance that's up to twice as fast as the A5."

The problem is, Apple didn't say much beyond that. So, I asked Anand Shimpi, from chip review site Anandtech. While some of it's guesswork, until reviewers decap the chip, Anand is usually on the money.

Based on the performance gains, he believes the A6 uses an ARM Cortex-A15 design. That's the latest and greatest from ARM, the chip architecture that powers virtually all of the world's major-brand smartphones.

This is pretty big, because, if true, it means Apple's chip is truly cutting edge. "It looks like Apple has integrated two ARM Cortex A15 cores on Samsung's [32 nanometer manufacturing] process. This is a huge deal, because it means Apple beat both [Texas Instruments] and Samsung on bringing A15s to market," he wrote in a blog post today.

And the Cortex A15 claim is seconded by analysts at Nomura Equity Research.

The graphics processing unit is less clear, but Anand believes that it could be using four Imagination PowerVR SGX543 cores, doubling the GPU core count in the iPhone 4S.

Another analyst believes that Apple is able to balance increased performance with decent battery life, because of tweaks done independent of the main central processing unit (CPU).

"In order to get double the performance, but still have good battery life, more than likely it's because they have beefed up peripheral cores," said Francis Sideco, an analyst at IHS iSuppli. "Those are GPUs, accelerators that are peripheral to the main core," he said.


Apple made some pretty impressive claims about battery life. Despite 4G long-term evolution's (LTE) reputation for sucking the life out of smartphone batteries in short order, Apple said that battery life essentially hasn't changed from the iPhone 4S.

"Internet use: up to 8 hours on 3G, up to 8 hours on LTE, up to 10 hours on Wi-Fi," according to Apple.

That probably has more than a little do with Qualcomm's newest silicon. Apple's A6 is paired with Qualcomm's single-chip 28-nanometer MDM9615 LTE, according to Anand.

"Apple claims support for EDGE, EV-DO, HSPA, HSPA+, DC-HSDPA and LTE. The Wi-Fi gets updated to dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz 802.11a/b/g/n, using 20MHz channels, Apple can hit a peak link rate of 150Mbps over Wi-Fi," he said.

iPod Touch

The new iPod Touch got an upgrade too. To a more pedestrian (and dated) dual-core A5 — the same chip in the iPhone 4S and iPad 2. That said, the A5 "provides up to twice the processing power and up to seven times faster graphics than the previous generation," according to Apple, referring to the previous chip in the iPod Touch.

Teardowns will reveal other new silicon in the iPhone 5, likely to include upgraded NAND flash memory and system DRAM chips. But, until then, the above covers the marquee changes.


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