APPLE'S IPHONE XS comes rocking Cupertino's new A12 Bionic chip, which promises a performance boost over its predecessor as well as a suite of smart tech.
At first glance, it looks like it'll be another powerful slice of silicon from the folks at One Infinite Loop. But first a minor history lesson.
Apple's A-series chips have for some time offered a proper dose of smartphone processor performance, which combined with the optimisation of iOS, has ensured using iPhones feels super smooth and slick.
Based on ARM instruction sets and, in the early days, architectures like many of the processors in smartphone SoCs, Apple has previously lagged behind in terms of core count and top clockspeeds. Yet in benchmarks its chips always prove they can compete with the best from Qualcomm and Samsung, which is a good indication of how full control over hardware design can yield fruit.
Each generation of A-series chip offered decent hikes in performance over their predecessors and allowed Apple to put fancier features into iOS.
However, it was with really the A10 Fusion SoC that Apple really stepped up its game. The chip came with a quad-core processor split into two high-performance cores and a brace of cores dedicated to efficiency; basically, a design set up by ARM's big.LITTLE architecture.
The following A10X Fusion added a six core design based on a 10-nanometre FinFET fabrication process provided by chip manufacturer TSMC, offering some proper performance for the likes of the iPad Pro.
But things got particularity interesting with the A11 Bionic, the chipset that underpinned the iPhone X. The 10nm chipset sported six cores - two for high-performance and four to take care of day-to-day iOS work - and a custom GPU handled polishing the pixels of the iPhone X's OLED display.
The standout feature, however, was the "Neural Engine" built into the SoC which powered the iPhone X's smartest feature like Face ID and, er, Animoji. It also rocked an improved signal processor to improve the iPhone X's camera performance, as well as better support augmented reality.
Now the A12 Bionic has made its debut, ushering in the first 7nm smartphone chip - yes, we know Huawei's Kirin 980 is a 7nm part but it won't hit the market before Apple's efforts, so no need to comment.
While Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845 sits at 10nm, the A12 Bionic seems to have stolen the lead in squeezing more transistors onto a silicon die.
The A11 Bionic already offered more performance than the Snapdragon 845, which is due a refresh, so the A12 Bionic is set to utterly trounce Qualcomm's finest given Apple's claims that it's 15 per cent faster than the A11 Bionic.
Leaked performance benchmarks in Geekbench show the A12 Bionic gets a single-core score of 4,813 and a multi-core score of 10,266, which is a good step up from its predecessor, despite essentially rocking the same six-core pseudo big.LITTLE configuration.
But anyone who's uses an iPhone 8 or iPhone X will not likely have thought the thing it needs is extra power, so the processor performance hike the A12 Bionic offers is arguably a tad moot. What isn't though it the GPU performance.
With a four-core custom design, Apple is touting the A12 Bionic's graphical performance as the step to running realistic graphics on a smartphone.
That might be a bit of a bold claim. While Apple got game developer Bethesda's Todd Howard to demonstrate the Skyrim-looking Elder Scrolls: Blades, it wasn't exactly ultra-realistic. But it did show that the A12 Bionic is no slouch when it comes to rendering graphics.
However, Blades is being developed for Android as well, because Bethesda isn't stupid enough to ignore such a market. As such, it's not likely that having an iPhone XS will be able to deliver gaming performance a smartphone with a Snapdragon 845 cannot, but it could mean Apple's flagship phone is the way to get the best performance in the most demanding smartphone games.
Naturally, that's speculation for the time being, as we'd need to get our hands on the new iPhones first before casting judgement.
That being said, there are still plenty of iOS developers that tailor games and graphically intensive apps that are iPhone only and geared to tap into the grunt of Apple's custom chips, so we could expect some impressive games to be on the horizon that makes use of the A12 Bionic's power.
So far the A12 Bionic is shaping up to be a solid upgrade on its older silicon sibling. But another core difference is the improvements Apple has done to the Neural Engine.
It can now handle five trillion operations per second, which is a bloody massive hike on the A11 Bionic's mere 600 billion. Of course, such numbers are meaningless to all but the most dedicated chip nerds, but it has lead to Apple claiming that the A12 Bionic is the "smartest" smartphone chip ever.
That's arguably hyperbole, but Apple's showcase of the iPhone XS' smart capabilities showed how it can bring dedicated AI processing to bear.
In one example, an app called Homecourt was showcased, which can capture footage of a user playing basketball and analyse the number of shots and misses they make in real-time. Doing that locally requires some serious performance at the silicon level, and it looks like the A12 Bionic has the chops to do so.
Core ML, Apple machine learning framework, apparently runs some nine times faster on the A12 Bionic, which should mean there's more performance on tap for developers to put AI abilities into their apps.
Having such machine learning performance on a device rather than requiring a connection back to a central or cloud-based system could be the motivation to get developers making more apps with AI-capabilities, especially as there are plenty of kits and frameworks to make the integration of machine learning a much easier process.
If you're still shrugging at the idea of more Neural Engine power and local AI features then it's worth noting that the A12 Bionic's smarts are being channelled into the iPhone XS and XS Max's camera.
Using algorithmic smarts, the A12 Bionic's Neural Engine and image signal processor can analyse camera shots in real-time and workout how to enhance them.
The stage demonstration of the improved camera showed super crisp and clean photos and the ability to change the bokeh effect from within the camera app, tapping into both the dual camera array and the A12 Bionic's smarts.
It also helps with improved face detection, which applies to Face ID, and can improve lighting in portrait pics. Essentially, the A12 Bionic's improved smart processing offers an even bigger boost in iPhone camera performance than the A11 Bionic.
Apple's smartphone cameras have always been in the upper echelons of the smartphone pack. But the AI capabilities found in the Pixel 2 pretty much set the standard to beat, that was until the Huawei P20 Pro came along with its own AI smarts. As such, mixing improved Neural Engine processing with a dual camera array was a necessary step for Apple to keep the iPhone XS competitive in the smartphone camera game.
Again, this is something we'd need to see for ourselves before coming to any conclusions, and it's worth noting that Google's Pixel 3 is likely on the horizon and we'd place a hefty bet it'll come with a whole dose of AI abilities.
Overall, the A12 Bionic looks to be a proper powerhouse SoC in terms of processing and graphical power. And it's improved smarts look to be very promising for iPhone photography as well as pave the way for smart apps.
In real-world terms, you're not likely to notice a vast difference in terms of everyday performance between an iPhone XS with its A12 Bionic and the OG iPhone X with the A11 Bionic. That's probably true if you compare it side-by-side in tasks like browsing and video rendering to say a Snapdragon 845 equipped Pixel 2 or OnePlus 6, both of which have nicely optimised versions of Android.
Apple has a habit of putting impressive chips into devices that are mere refreshes of their predecessors rather than a generational step-up. We'd have rather seen the A12 Bionic popped into an iPhone that has features and an app ecosystem that can really put the new SoC's abilities to the test; say some with some swish augmented reality software.
But that's may be expecting too much as developers need to have access to a powerful chip before they can build kit and apps that tap into its power and features.
It's arguably early days for the A12 Bionic, especially since its only the second generation A-series chip to sport the Neural Engine. As such, there's probably a lot of potential for the chip that has yet to be unearthed.
We reckon it could pave the way for some very impressive stuff in the iPhone 11, providing Apple pulls it's finger out and starts leading smartphone innovation rather than seemingly swimming in the wake of the likes of Samsung (don't @ us). µ
Tabs to more Ctrl and less Win. Such Fn.
Either that or it's a really intense holiday