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64bit mobile chips catch on at MWC

Posted: 25 Feb 2014  Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:64bit  mobile processor  smartphone 

There have been several 64bit mobile processors being announced by chip manufacturers recently. Despite the flurry, native 64bit OS support in mobile devices has yet to catch on. Moreover, chip manufacturers are releasing enhanced 32bit chips, which makes it even harder to identify the utility of 64bit processors in smartphones.

Since the introduction of the Apple iPhone 5S with the 64bit Apple A7 processor, it's become something of a status symbol to have a 64bit mobile applications processor. Intel, Mediatek, Nvidia, and Qualcomm either announced 64bit plans before or during the Mobile World Congress here.

While there's no proof that mobile devices are ready for 64bit code, the Apple introduction has kicked off a flurry of 64bit chip announcements that continue through the 2014 Mobile World Congress. The rush to 64bit mobile processors is on.

Does 64bit ARM processors make any sense in a 2014 smartphone? Or is 64bitness the next big marketing check-off box for smartphone chip makers? But will consumers of high-end smartphones be clamoring for 64bit processors, like the one found in the Apple iPhone 5S? The answers are: somewhat, clearly, and uncertain. In addition, there's going to be an uneven introduction of 64bit processors in the market.

The utility of a 64bit processor in smartphones and consumer tablets has been subject of debate. An executive of one chip company called it a "gimmick," but soon afterwards his employer disavowed that categorisation.

Apple's 64bit iOS and application code takes advantage of the more efficient ARMv8 instruction set, but it's hard to separate the influence of the new instruction set from the other microarchitecture changes that Apple made in the A7 when comparing it with other 32bit ARM processors.

Intel is also promoting 64bit support in its latest Atom processors build on the 22nm Silvermont core. But 64bit instruction sets are not only useful to address larger memory arrays, both ARM and Intel have solutions for paging schemes to support more than 4GB of RAM in their respective 32bit instruction sets.

In both the ARMv8 instruction set (and to be more exact, the AArch64 mode) and the Intel x8- 64 instruction set there are enhancements to the chip microarchitectures that improve performance and break through limitations of the 32bit versions. The ARMv8 and x86-64 instructions offer significantly more register resources and add new capabilities such as improved virtualisation support.

While Apple recompiled its iOS operating system and core applications for 64bit, neither Google's Android nor Microsoft's Windows Phone operating systems are 64bit enabled. Both Intel and Nvidia have demonstrated Android recompiled for 64 bits, but only not as a released operating system and Google has not announced native 64bit support.

Microsoft has also not revealed a 64bit roadmap for Windows Phone OS. The lack of a 64bit operating system is only a temporary problem as 64bit operating systems lagged the introduction of 64bit capable PC processors and the ARMv8 instruction set include 32bit backwards compatibility through the AArch32 mode.


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