Apple stuns with 64-bit iPhone 5S; unveils lower-priced 5C

Both phones will be available on September 20

Apple unveiled its new high-end iPhone, and stunned observers by implementing a 64-bit CPU architecture and operating system for it. It also unveiled a lower-cost plastic model that's half the price of its aluminum cousin.

Both phones will be available on September 20, with the plastic phone, iPhone 5C, available for pre-ordering on September 13.

The high-end iPhone is now available in three new shades of anodized aluminum: silver, gold, and a gray or graphite.

There had been speculation that Apple might debut a 64-bit processor, but it was not widely expected, in part because ARM Ltd, from whom Apple licenses its instruction set, will not be introducing its own 64-chips until later in 2014. The iPhone 5S is the first 64-bit smartphone.

Apple executives say the combination of 64-bit CPU, dubbed the A7, and the rewritten iOS 7 and Apple apps will have a dramatic impact on performance: the CPU is twice as fast as the A6 and graphics performance is twice as fast also. According to Apple, iPhone CPU performance has jumped 40 times from the first iPhone to the new 5S: but that fully half of that increase is due to the 64-bit architecture in the new iPhone.

The A7 has twice the general purpose registers and floating point registers, and over 1 billion transistors on a die size that's the same (at 32 nm) as the year-old A6. For the first time, it supports the Open GL ES 3.0 graphics standard.

In a demo of a new version of Infinity Blade 3, EPIC Games co-founder Donald Mustard showed how the new CPU supported much greater level of detail in the animations. And he noted how quickly his engineers were able to convert the code for 64-bit. "Typically, converting to 64-bit is a lengthy process," he said. "But with Apple's tools, one person converted the code in two hours."

Apple has created a native 64-bit kernel for iOS 7, along with companion drivers and libraries.

Also new is a "motion co-processor," a separate chip dubbed the M7. It coordinates data from the phones' sensors accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass, without having to wake-up the A7. Apple also updated the CoreMotion API. Together the M7 and the various sensors can track and act up the user's activities and location.

Apple improved the main camera with a new five-element, Apple-designed lens, with a larger aperture at f/2.2. The 15-percent larger sensor area, and new, larger pixels at 1.5 microns deliver crisp, accurate images. There's also improvements to iOS 7 software to automatically white balance images, handle exposures, and created what the company called a "dynamic local tone map" around each image to get better highlights and shadows.

Also new for the camera is what Apple calls True Tone flash: using two LEDs, one a cooler white the other a warmer white to create over 1,000 flash colors to match the specific light situation you're in.

Finally, as many had expected, Apple announced a fingerprint scanner built-into the home button. Touch ID reads one or more of your fingerprints, and can be used to lock/unlock the phone and to log into your Apple ID. The prints remain on your phone: they're not stored on Apple's servers or backed up to iCloud. Apple executives say Touch ID has been integrated deeply into iOS 7, but much of that integration seems destined for future apps and services, such as the long-expected mobile payments capability.

US pricing is unchanged, starting at US$199 for 16GB, $299 for 32GB, and $399 for 64GB, all assuming a two-year contract.

The iPhone 5C eliminates some of the high-end features to come in at half the contract price. And it replaces the iPhone 5, which apparently will now be discontinued. The 5C sticks with the A6 processor, and has a hard-coated polycarbonate seamless body, around a reinforced steel frame. Also missing is the fingerprint scanner. It has the 8 megapixel iSight camera and an improved Facetime HD camera. Importantly, it runs iOS 7 without any compromises.

It's also available in two rather than three storage options: starting at $99 for 16GB, and $199 for 32GB, with two-year contracts.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnwwEmail: john_cox@nww.com

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