Forbes says that the iPhone Needs A New Brain.  We tend to agree with that assessment.  One of the things that kills us in the current iPhone experience is sluggishness.  The long pauses between switching apps and startup times for applications are great for a phone but could certainly be improved upon.  Applications like Safari take a few seconds to start up, especially if there are other processes running. Mobile Safari is great, but wouldn’t it be cool if it could render pages even faster?  A faster processor could help.

Remember, even though Apple doesn’t support background execution on third party apps, all of the main apps do work in the background.  If Mobile Mail is downloading a big attachment or you are getting an SMS while trying to open a Safari window, you might have to wait a few seconds more than normal.

A few seconds here and there starts to become annoying.  Never fear, however,  these types of user experience improvements are what Apple is famous for methodically trying to improve.  Pre-iPhone, no one would have believed you could have any type of enjoyable web surfing experience on a phone.  That myth was broken in 2007 when Apple released the iPhone with a Samsung ARM Processor.  But it isn’t 2007 anymore.  iPhone competitors have the same Webkit based browsers that Apple employs and are building app stores and running on Unix and Linux.  Apple needs to stay ahead of the game.

According to Forbes:


It’s more than just a power-management problem, however. "One of the drawbacks of the iPhone right now is it can only [run] one application at a time," says Will Strauss, president of wireless market research firm Forward Concepts. With a more powerful processor, he adds, the iPhone could run several applications concurrently[It already does – this is a misunderstanding].

Apple’s rivals are already heading down that path. Palm is pushing out a new phone based around Texas Instrument‘s OMAP3430 processor. One of the Pre’s key features: the ability to show the user information from more than one application at a time. The software makes it slick, but TI’s hardware makes that possible.

Apple, meanwhile, relies on an application processor from Samsung [S3C6400]. There are two problems there. For starters, Samsung also sells smart phones, allowing it to give its phones the same capabilities, on paper, as Apple’s iPhone. The bigger problem, however, is just about muscle. The relatively dinky processor can’t match the TI model’s power [for more on this, go here].

There are several possible solutions. Samsung could build a new processor around the same ARM Cortex-A8 architecture TI uses [Already released S5PC100], or Apple could switch to TI, Strauss suggests. Alternatively, Apple could build a processor of its own, presumably one based on the ARM-architecture, with the chip designers it picked up last year with its acquisition of PA Semi.

The Samsung S5PC100 – Samsung’s successor to the iPhone chip

We waiver on what chip makes the most sense.  Our thoughts are that Apple has maxed out the S3C6400 at 533MHz on the iPod touch 2.0.  That doesn’t mean they won’t put out a lower cost iPhone based on this chip that is, for most intents and purposes, the same as the iPhone3G.  This would be the lower end type of product (iPhone Nano?)…the kind they would hypothetically want to slang in developing world-type markets.  Apple doesn’t usually do this kind of thing, however.

If Apple is going to go head to head with the Pre and other smartphone OSes out there (remember these are year long life cycles we are talking about here – this iPhone will be still be selling in May of 2010), they are going to need some more "brains", as Forbes puts it.   There are at least five ways that Apple could go with this:

1. The TI OMAP 3430 chip that is in the Pre is a very quick chip.  That is why the Pre has the horsepower to do all of that fancy multitasking you see in all of those videos.  It has about double the horsepower of Apple’s current Samsung and can use less power (see why Apple should be changing?).  It is also in a few other hot new devices like the Open Pandora and the Archos phone

2. Samsung’s ARM Cortex A8  S5PC100 followup to their iPhone chip (schematic pictured above). This would be the easiest migration route and would require the least amout of low level code changes.  It looks to be on roughly the same level as the TI OMAP 3430.  Also, Apple buys lots of Flash from Samsung so their partnership is already strong.

3. Apple/PA Semi could be building their own chip.  After all, this is what Jobs said they bought the company for.  It will still likely be based on an ARM Cortex architecture and, like all of these other chips (except NVIDIA – which have their own hard-core GPU), work with Imagination’s multi-core GPU.

4. Macrumors said they’ve heard claims that the  Marvell PXA168 ARM XScale chip is going to be the next iPhone chip.  While this is kind of a wild card (Intel sold the XScale technology used to build the ARM processor to Marvell in 2006 for $600 million), Apple has been known to do some interesting things.

5. NVidia, Apple’s partner on DisplayPort technology on its new Mac line as well as OpenCL partner, has an incredible ARM line called Tegra.  Their chips have been shown to run head to head with Intel’s Atoms at multiples less power usage.  These chips are rumored to be entering Netbooks running Ubuntu and Android shortly.  Apple invests in and loves Imaginations GPU chips so it is unlikely that they would use NVIDIA’s.

All of these ARM Cortex chips benefit from the work that ARM has been putting into making these products "netbook worthy".  They will all run Flash 10 out of the box as well as modern browsers like Firefox and Webkit-based Safari very quickly.  They also blow away Intel’s Atom in terms of power usage.  A lot of these chips run in devices that  can measure their battery time in days, not hours.

That brings us to this 10-inch tablet device we’ve been hearing so much about.  If it is at all based on the iPhone OS X, it will definitely need an ARM processor that can handle hardcore computing.  The current iPhone chip simply isn’t an option.  Notice in the white papers above that  three processors listed above all support 720P decoding (TI is slightly less, PA Semi unknown).  This would be the high point in the resolution possibilities (720P= 720×1280 pixels = few vertical pixels shy of MacBook resolution).  Dell’s Mini 10 has this resolution and newer high end Netbooks are kind of congregating around this sweet spot.

Forbes is right.  Apple has to do something about the 2+ year old iPhone/iPod Touch processor.  It will be extremely interesting to see  which direction Apple chooses to take.  We’ll also be watching out for any big orders from these guys in the coming weeks.


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