Why in the World Would You Need a 64-bit Smartphone?

Don't let the iPhone 5S's 64-bit-ness (or straw-manning about what Apple's claiming) fool you.

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Let’s answer that question straight up front: you don’t. Not today, where nothing exists that’ll take advantage of the 64-bit architecture in Apple’s A7 processor — not in a meaningful way.

Apple’s rightly claiming it has the first phone-based 64-bit chip, but it’s also future-proofing — a little like noting a TV supports UHDTV despite the absence of 2160p (3840 by 2160 pixels at 16:9) content. At some point that content shows up, but in the meantime, you’re paying for a promise. And in the iPhone 5S’s case, you’ll want to weigh the device’s other assets before making a decision.

On the other hand, there’s what Apple’s saying and what the media’s saying Apple’s saying about the iPhone 5S, and rarely do the twain sync up. Apple’s as guilty as any company of hyping the holy living you-know-what out of its ideas, but that’s no reason to make the critical mistake of throwing every claim under the bus.

For instance:

Apple never claimed 64-bit makes the iPhone 5S faster at launch.

When Apple’s Phil Schiller unveiled the iPhone 5S on September 10, he first described it as “the most forward-thinking phone we’ve ever created.” That’s not hype — it is forward-thinking. Neither is his point that having a full 64-bit architecture means applications can employ a more efficient “modern instruction set,” — can being the operative word here.

Yes, Schiller claimed Apple’s A7 system-on-a-chip has the potential to be a whole lot faster than the A6 — up to twice as fast at both CPU and GPU tasks — but don’t forget there’s much more to the A7 than just the 64-bit rethink. Schiller’s claim extends to the A7’s higher core clock speeds, faster LPDDR3 memory and quad-core PowerVR graphics chip — all independent improvements — and we’ll have to see how they hash out when the independent benchmarks arrive.

Apple’s take on 64-bit isn’t mere “marketing fluff.”

This Extreme Tech piece is both agreeable and informative, but the title’s too dismissive. As noted above, Apple’s made no claims that the 64-bit processor in the iPhone 5S equates to immediately faster performance.

But it’s inaccurate to dismiss 64-bit as “fluff” given the foundation it’s building for register efficiency, floating points instructions and memory addressability (granted on the latter it’ll be some time before Apple’s putting more than 4GB of memory in an iPhone).

We’ll have to see what the benchmarks tell us, but ChAIR Entertainment, the studio behind the first 64-bit iOS game Infinity Blade III (launching next week), claims it’s seeing quantifiable improvements already. “One of the things we’ve found is that it really is quite a bit more powerful,” ChAIR co-founder Geremy Mustard told Mashable. “Having a native 64-bit means instructions process more efficiently and we actually get a much higher boost for that.”

That said, iOS apps are 32-bit — they have no idea what 64-bit is.

32-bit apps won’t benefit an iota from the A7’s new 64-bit architecture. Except for iOS 7 itself, which is going to exist for a while in a kind of 32-bit/64-bit limbo that may or may not result in tangible 64-bit-related performance improvements (again, wait for the benchmarks) as well as Infinity Blade III. That’s the entirety of your 64-bit spectrum if you’re picking up an iPhone 5S next week.

Not that Apple shouldn’t be touting the A7’s 64-bit-ness.

Every consumer-angled 64-bit chipmaker bragged about word size when it made the jump, a tradition that extends at least as far back as the Nintendo 64 (a console that probably did more to mythologize what 64-bit means than anything before it or since).

Someone had to be first, and so long as we’re clear that the performance benefits lie in the chip’s potential, why wouldn’t you boast a little? Again, it’s right there on Apple’s iPhone 5S page: the marketing sub-hed at the top reads “Forward Thinking.” Because it is.

But how far forward are we talking?

There’s the rub: probably far enough that you shouldn’t buy the iPhone 5S next week on the 64-bit argument alone (the A7’s unrelated and immediate performance perks, the phone’s improved camera, the fingerprint scanner, the motion coprocessor, and the new bling coloring are different questions).

But when you start asking questions like “Should I skip this generation?” you’re into the speculation game — a game that involves crystal ball-gazing about unknowable developer timetables and assumptions about when Apple’s going to release its next iPhone.

Thus I’d simply follow what I see as Apple’s own rhetorical guidance here: admire the “forward thinking” 64-bit shift, but don’t bank on it.