ANOTHER YEAR, ANOTHER iTHING LAUNCH from Apple, with this year's September showcase of pretending Cupertino is the only tech company making gadgets marking the debut of a new iPad, the iPhone 11, and the iPhone 11 Pro models.
These phones were a bit more interesting than last year's incremental update to the iPhone X in the form of the iPhone Xs, but the latter did introduce some new silicon in the form of the A12 Bionic and the Cupertino has repeated that trick with the A13 Bionic.
This chip is a follow on from the A12 Bionic which we dug into last year and noted how it offered a solid performance hike and graphical grunt, though it was packaged in a rather lacklustre incremental iPhone model.
Apple's A-series chips, based on ARM instruction sets, have always delivered slick iPhone performance. But a lot of that was arguably down to software optimisation rather than raw power at a silicon level.
Then Apple came up with the A10 Fusion SoC which stepped things up in the chip performance stakes, mixing high-performance cores with cores dedicated for handling less compute-hungry tasks and thereby helping extend battery life.
That was all well and good, with the six-core A10X Fusion powering the iPad Pro, making it a gutsy fondleslate.
But as Android phones started coming with chips that support artificial intelligence-powering components, like Qualcomm's Snapdragon chips with the company's AI Engine, Apple needed an SoC with AI capabilities.
The A11 Bionic not only brought in more processor performance, but also debuted Cupertino's "Neural Engine", which was a dedicated part of the chip designed to power smart augmented reality features, like Apple's Animoji, and power clever image processing stuff, like Face ID.
The A11 Bionic popped up in the iPhone X and was subsequently followed by the A12 Bionic in the iPhone Xs. And much like night turns into day, so too do the new iPhones come with the A13 Bionic.
Unfortunately for folks that get funny in certain spots when a new chip is revealed, the A13 Bionic isn't a massive step up from the A12 Bionic. We're aware of the A12X Bionic, but that's an iPad Pro chip, so we'll stick to comparing iPhone silicon to iPhone silicon.
Nevertheless, the A13 Bionic is still a step up from its predecessor. Some bloke from Apple popped up on stage to spout a load of rather complex chip stuff, like how the A13 Bionic has 8.5 billion transistors over the 6.9 billion of the A12 Bionic.
The whole thing felt a bit un-Apple, throwing nerdy specs around and claiming the engineers had "tailored each transistor for higher performance and low power", rather than babbling on about how the chip will make your life better and more creative and yadda, yadda, yadda.
But then the chip has the same six-core configuration as the A12 Bionic, with two high-performance cores and four cores for taking care of less demanding stuff. A four-core GPU is also present and correct, as is an eight-core Neural Engine. And the chip uses the same 7-nanometre process as the A12 Bionic, which puts it on par with the latest Snapdragon and Huawei Kirin SoCs.
Yet despite the spec similarities, Apple still touted the A13 Bionic as having "the fastest CPU ever in a smartphone" as well as sporting "the fastest GPU in a smartphone".
You might be scratching your noggin, asking how Apple can make such claims when the A13 Bionic is seemingly the same as the older chip. The answer is optimisation and efficiency.
Apple's silicon smart folks have managed to extract more performance from the chip, touting a 20 per cent performance hike on both the high-performance and efficiency cores, and a boost of 20 per cent in graphical grunt. The Neural Engine has also been tickled to deliver a 20 per cent improvement in performance.
That means the A13 Bionic outpaces the A12 Bionic by a decent margin, some six times according to Apple. It's also faster than the current crop of chips in flagship Android phones, with a leaked Geekbench 4 score showing what looks like the A13 Bionic raking in scored that outpaces the Snapdragon 855 in the OnePlus 7 Pro, and beating the scores the Galaxy S10 Plus and Huawei P30 Pro managed. It even has the Snapdragon 855 Plus chip beaten.
But then this is par for the course for A-series chips, which have consistently beaten those found in Android rivals at launch. Given Apple doesn't spread its chips further afield there's no way to see how they'd perform running Android. And as iOS is so well optimised anyway, it's a bit tricky to really get too fussed about a performance hike, as we found the A12 Bionic in the fifth-generation iPad Mini is no slouch.
However, performance isn't the headline here. Rather, Apple has managed to get more performance per Watt out of the A13 Bionic over its predecessor.
This all means the CPU uses 40 per cent less power on is high-performance cores, 30 per cent less on the efficiency cores, and the GPU sucks up 40 per cent less juice, while the Neural Engine power guzzling is down by 15 per cent. More compute power for lower energy consumption, we can get behind that.
Such a boost in efficiency means Apple reckons the iPhone 11 Pro will have four hours more electrical endurance than the iPhone Xs, which is nothing to be sniffed at given that's around an extra half a working day of battery life.
Aside from boosted battery life, you'd be forgiven for shrugging a bit at the A13 Bionic. We wouldn't blame you, as the chip is more on an incremental upgrade over the bigger step the A12 Bionic delivered when it took Apple's A-series processors from the 10-nanometre to the 7nm process node. Yet the chip is still noteworthy.
The iPhone 11 Pro comes with a trio of cameras and will support slow motion-selfies, which Apple is calling "slowfies" - blegh - and 4K video at 60 frames per second. That takes a bit of processing grunt, so having an efficient SoC with dedicated hardware smarts to support slick image processing is certainly a boon.
Improvements in the GPU and the Metal API not only offer better performance and texture filtering but also support improved HDR, which should help make games and videos with support for high dynamic range look better.
However, this extra GPU and CPU performance is only good if developers put it to use. And when was the last time you saw a particularly demanding game that only an iPhone with the latest A-series SoC could handle…
That could change though with the debut of Cupertino's subscription game service Apple Arcade, which should see iOS and other related Apple platforms get exclusive titles. As such, it could attract developers willing to use Apple's support to take a punt on making a game that demands all the performance the A13 Bionic could offer. We'd certainly be game to see that; pun intended.
And there's scope for Apple and developers in its ecosystem to tap into the Neural Engine to add more hardware-accelerated smarts into software features and apps.
It's early days and we've yet to get our mitts on any of the iPhone 11 models. We can easily predict that they'll feel slicker than an eel dipped in oil, but there's potential for a lot to be extracted out of their silicon that could throw up some interesting stuff if developers roll their sleeves up.
The only problem we see is the lack of 5G support, but then Apple's looking like its got that scheduled for 2020, so check back here then. Or keep coming back for our irreverent take on tech news, up to you folks. µ
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