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(Image courtesy of Apple).

Apple's A13 Processor Powers Its Latest iPhone Lineup

Apple rolled out its latest line of iPhones with a new A-Series SoC that boosts performance by 20% and lowers power up to 40% over the previous year's phones, powering bigger and better cameras and adding hours to the iPhone's battery life. The launch comes as the Silicon Valley electronics giant looks to shake a prolonged slump in iPhone sales, as consumers hold onto their high-end phones longer than ever before upgrading.

Apple's A13 Bionic runs in the $699 iPhone 11, which costs $50 less at launch than the entry-level iPhone 10. The chip is also slapped inside the $999 iPhone 11 Pro, which adds another camera to create a three-camera system, and the $1,099 iPhone Pro Max. The chip has more built-in artificial intelligence capabilities central to the new iPhone's ability to shoot better photos and videos and offer faster facial and voice recognition.

The move highlights Apple's advances in custom chip design and how the company is trying to appeal to customers ahead of launching its 5G iPhones, which are expected to come out in 2020. Sri Santhanam, vice president of Apple’s silicon engineering group, detailed the A13 on stage at Apple's iPhone 11 product launch event. Kaiann Drance, senior director of iPhone marketing, claims the A13 is the fastest CPU and GPU in any smartphone today.

The A13 processor moved to a more advanced 7-nanometer node than last year's A12 Bionic. Apple tends to jump to the front of the line for the most advanced and costly chip production process from TSMC, the world's biggest made-to-order chip maker, which also makes chips for China's Huawei. The new chip contains has 8.5 billion transistors—20% more than the previous A12 processor's 6.9 billion, which has 60% more than the A11's 4.3 billion. 

Over the last decade, Apple has been building more and more of the chips powering its gadgets, ranging from its iPhone and Mac computers to Apple Watches and AirPods wireless earbuds. Having control over its hardware—the A-Series SoCs—and software—the iOS operating system—has reinforced its lead in the premium smartphone space. That has also helped it get to market first with new features such as augmented reality and face unlock.

The company's new A-Series SoC contains a six-core central processing unit (CPU), including four high-efficiency cores that are 20% faster and consume 30% less power than last year's iPhones. The A13 processor also has a pair of high-performance CPU cores that are designed to be up to 20% faster or 40% lower power for running through more rigorous computations. Apple also designed the A13's image signal processor (ISP) that connects to the camera.

Overall, the central processor inside Apple's A13 can perform a trillion operations per second (TOPS). Crammed inside the CPU are AI accelerators that can handle the core mathematical operations of machine learning. It also incorporates an eight-core Neural Engine for running AI chores inside the iPhone 11 instead of the cloud, reducing delays and potentially adding to privacy. The A13's Neural Engine is 20% faster and 15% lower power than the A12's. 

Apple also has expertise developing high-end graphics processing units (GPUs) in the iPhone. The A13 processor features a custom four-core GPU that runs 20% faster or consumes 40% less power so iPhone users can play games with higher-resolution graphics. A new machine learning controller in the A13 sends AI chores to the CPU, GPU or Neural Engine depending on the area of the chip that can strike the best balance of speed and efficiency.

The A13 processor is also designed to make the iPhone's camera more capable. Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of marketing, called it the cornerstone of the advanced camera system in the high-end iPhone Pro. The rear of the iPhone Pro features three cameras—wide angle, telephoto and a new ultrawide angle—that can work together to produce better photos. Apple also said it had given the iPhone Pro ability to brighten photos taken in the dark.

Apple introduced its Deep Fusion technology, which will ship with iOS 13. It works by shooting photos from the Pro's three cameras and then combining them into one shot, using the Neural Engine to enhance textures, scrub out blurriness and sharpen details. Apple also added the ultrawide angle camera to its entry-level iPhone 11. The dual camera can take advantage of the A13 to shoot sharper portraits than 2018's iPhone XR, which has one camera.

Schiller underlined how much longer the batteries inside the new iPhones will last with the A13. The entry-level iPhone averages an additional hour of battery life over the iPhone XR, while the iPhone Pro adds around four hours of battery life compared to last year's iPhone XS. The iPhone Pro Max can last five hours longer than the iPhone XS Max. Apple also said it had added Wi-Fi 6 support in the new iPhones, which feature 4G connectivity up to 1.6 Gbps.

The No.3 player in the smartphone market behind Samsung and Huawei, Apple is trying to hold its ground in the market for high-end handsets ahead of the first 5G iPhone, which has likely been delayed to late 2020. Apple could lose market share as major phone makers using Google's Android OS start shipping 5G models in 2019. Market researcher IDC said in its latest forecast that iPhone shipments could fall by 15% to fewer than 200 million units in 2019.

The global rollout of 5G networks could turn things around in the smartphone market, which has been struggling to return to growth in recent years. IDC said in its report that shipments of 5G handsets could close out 2020 with nearly 10% market share. 5G shipments are expected to more than double to 123.5 million units globally in 2019, it reported. IDC projects shipments of 5G handsets rising sharply to roughly 28% of the total market by the end of 2023.

Android's share of handset shipments is seen increasing from 85% to 87% by the end of the year, IDC reported. But iOS phone shipments could start to improve in 2020 after Apple's anticipated launch of a high-end iPhone using 5G modem chips sold by Qualcomm, the market researcher said. The delay could end up giving Apple the edge over "other vendors with a better understanding of 5G market conditions for a much more planned launch," IDC said.

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