Apple’s latest products: processor upgrades all around

Article By : Brian Dipert

The products Apple announced at its two fall 2018 intro events were notable, but the real stars of the shows were Apple's IP core and SoC design teams.

Apple's ongoing announcements are important to follow for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the insights they provide into the overall health of the particular tech markets Apple plays in. They also are an indirect indicator of the potential future fortunes of Apple's suppliers, as well as of its competitors (who have either premiered new features in their products that Apple is now also incorporating, or visa versa).

Last year, Apple held only one new product intro event in the fall (technically, the very end of summer), which I covered and which focused mostly on new iPhone and Apple Watch models. This year's cadence conversely included two fall events, the first one again in mid-September and again concentrating on the iPhone and Apple Watch product lines, and the other more recent and more product-diverse one in mid-October. Focusing first on the September event, the company began by announcing the Apple Watch Series 4 product line, in both GPS- only and GPS-plus-cellular variants, EOLing the legacy Series 1 in the process and analogous to what it had done one year earlier with the Series 3 product line.

The biggest design change this time involves a ~30% larger display area for both watch sizes, primarily accomplished via improvements in the screen-to-bezel ratio (i.e. the watch dimensions are only minimally changed from Series 3, and prior-generation bands still work fine). Unsurprisingly, there’s a new S4 SoC powering the Series 4, containing fully Apple-designed CPU and GPU cores inside. Other functional enhancements include an improved accelerometer and gyroscope (now claimed capable of reliably detecting when the wearer has fallen and initiating an emergency call), louder built-in speakers, a relocated microphone, and an electrode in the crown intended to be touched by the other hand’s finger in order to implement closed-loop ECG (electrocardiogram) measurement capabilities (which haven’t yet been enabled by supportive software).

Last year, I told you about Apple’s premier OLED-based smartphone, the iPhone X, which also included a depth-sensing front camera array and a dual rear camera (able to, for example, support narrowed depth-of-field “bokeh” effects, which the company refers to as Portrait mode). This year’s successor is a two-product family; the iPhone Xs with an unchanged 5.8″ screen size but based on a next-generation SoC, the 7 nm-fabricated A12 Bionic (naming reflective of its newly added neural network inference processing core), and a 6.5″ sibling, the iPhone Xs Max. Both phones also have claimed improvements in front and rear camera low light and other quality-and-performance metrics, due to both new larger-pixel image sensors and the A12 Bionic’s improved ISP and other subsystems.

The other smartphone model Apple unveiled in September is the iPhone XR. Like the iPhone XS series, it’s based on the A12 Bionic SoC and includes a front depth camera. But it integrates a 6.1″ 1792×828 pixel edge-to-edge LCD, not an OLED, therefore splitting the screen size difference between the Xs and Xs Max (as well as delivering a notable resolution deficit, not only versus its OLED counterparts but also competitors’ LCDs of similar dimensions). But thanks in no small part to the LCD-vs-OLED differentiation, it’s also quite a bit less expensive than its OLED counterparts; 64 GB versions of the XR, Xs, and Xs Max are respectively $749, $999, and $1099. And iFixit tongue-in-cheek calls it the “iPhone 9,” reflective of the naming cadence skip that I noted a year ago.

The relative positioning of the three new products is pretty clear; the XR is the A12 Bionic-based phone intended for the mainstream (I should also note that the XR contains only a single rear camera; it accomplishes its Portrait “bokeh” effects solely via AI-trained software and therefore currently only works with people’s faces). Relative positioning versus iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 precursors is fuzzier (and apparently not just to me; the company is reportedly now reprioritizing production away from the newer model based on consumer preference for predecessors). Each incremental generation contains a more powerful SoC architecture, of course; the iPhone 8 family also offers wireless charging support. But both the iPhone 7 (which, it’s very curious to me, Apple is still selling) and iPhone 8 come in 4.7″ base and 5.5″ Plus variants; here’s how lowest-capacity model pricing stacks up:

iPhone 7 (32GB) iPhone 7 Plus (32GB) iPhone 8 (64GB) iPhone 8 Plus (64GB) iPhone XR (64GB)
$449 $569 $599 $699 $749

Onward to October. First up was the MacBook Air, which up to that point many industry observers had reckoned was on the chopping block due to how long it had been since it was last (notably) updated. While the older version remains for sale, at least for now, this new model is a significant uptick; a Retina high-definition display, for example, along with dual Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports along the left edge (reminiscent of the MacBook Pro) and upgraded Intel CPUs and graphics. As such, frankly, it seriously muddles Apple’s portable computer portfolio, which also includes 13″ and 15″ MacBook Pros and the 12″ MacBook, whose only remaining redeeming quality is its slightly thinner/smaller size and lighter weight (thankfully Apple already killed the 11″ MacBook Air, otherwise the MacBook would have even less justification for its existence).

Equally long in the tooth, and thankfully now also updated, is the Mac mini. The first thing you’ll likely notice is the shift in color from silver to “space gray,” but the bulk of the upgrade action’s under the hood. Newer four- and six-core Intel CPU options (with associated graphics upgrades) were sorely needed, as is a maximum memory capacity uptick from 16 GBytes to 64 GBytes (along with a reverse away from soldered-down DRAM back to removable, and presumably user-upgradeable, SO-DIMM modules). Slow HDDs, whether standalone or Fusion-augmented by flash memory, are no more, replaced by speedier SSD-only storage capacity options. And external connectivity expands to four Thunderbolt 3 ports, accompanied by dual USB-A ports.

The star of the show, though, was the iPad product line (which hadn’t seen an update since March of 2018 … with that said, an update to the iPad mini, last upgraded in September 2015, is still MIA), specifically the high-end iPad Pro (which hadn’t seen an update since the summer of 2017). In general, Pro models include higher-performance SoCs than their mainstream tablet counterparts, along with multiple speakers for higher quality sound. The Pro product line also comes in a 12.9″ display option, and until the March 2018 iPad model, Pros were the only means by which you could gain Pencil user interface support.

As regular readers may already remember, I’ve been exploring alternative computing approaches (to Macs and PCs) of late; a Google Chrome OS-based Pixelbook, for example, along with an Apple iPad mini 2. What I hadn’t previously mentioned is that I also recently picked up a brand new (therefore still AppleCare+ extended warranty-eligible) first-generation 9.7″ iPad Pro, fully loaded with 256GB of storage and LTE cellular data support (along with Wi-Fi, of course), for $499 tax-free from Small Dog Electronics. This particular model was initially released at the end of March 2016 and was replaced by a 10.5″ second-generation successor in June 2017. I have no idea why the unit Small Dog sold me was still available for purchase brand new more than a year after its EOL date, but my reason for buying it should be clear when I note that a similarly equipped third-generation 11″ iPad Pro would have set me back more than twice as much cash … $1,099 plus sale tax, to be precise.

As you may have noticed from the previous paragraph’s details, the smaller of the two iPad Pro models has increased its display size each generation, the result of both form factor growth and improvements in the screen-to-bezel ratio (those of you drawing analogies to my earlier Apple Watch Series 4 and iPhone XR mentions are spot-on). As expected, both members of the latest iPad Pro family also run on a core count-enhanced variant of the iPhone Xs/XR’s A12 Bionic SoC, called the A12X Bionic … Apple has done iPad-tailored “X” versions of prior architectures several times in the past, reflective of (among other things) the need to process much higher display pixel counts at acceptable rates with large-screen tablets versus with smaller-screen smartphones.

Another notable difference with these latest iPad Pros is that they’ve transitioned from Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector to industry-standard USB-C. This is, for anyone who’s followed Apple for any reasonable length of time, a notable departure from the norm. My guess as to why they did this is two-fold: with the new systems’ battery capacities, they needed more rapid recharging (therefore more electron “juice” transference) than Lightning could reliably supply, and their content-creation target market wanted to be able to easily tether a high-res external display (a capability that Apple specifically highlighted at the intro event).

Somewhat related to the Lightning-to-USB-C transition is the v2 Pencil that Apple announced as a peripheral companion to the new iPad Pros. Its enhanced functionality won’t be accessible to existing iPad (2018) and iPad Pro owners, since it’s backwards-incompatible, in part because the first-generation Pencil charged over Lightning whereas this time inductive (“wireless”) charging is employed via a magnetic bond between Pencil and tablet. I’m still not buying that the Pencil is an acceptable alternative to still-absent mouse and trackpad support … but I’ll save more discussion on this point, as part of a broader treatise of whether or not (and if so, how and when) Apple will obsolete x86-based computers in favor of its own SoC-powered successors, for a near-future post of its own.

For now, I’ll conclude by giving abundant kudos to Apple’s core and chip design teams. Each of the non-x86-based products I discussed in this post received a processor upgrade this time around … the Apple Watch (S4), iPhone XR and Xs (A12 Bionic), and iPad Pros (A12X Bionic). Even the MacBook Air and Mac mini contain new Apple-designed T-series coprocessors. And this achievement isn’t inconsistent with the longer-term trend, quite the contrary; the schedule predictability (not to mention the generational functional and performance improvement) is quite astounding when you look at the big picture. What strikes you, positively and/or negatively, about Apple’s new products and their hardware and software subsystem foundations? Sound off in the comments.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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