The iPhone 6 unknowns
What we don’t know far outnumbers, and outweighs, what we think we know.
Almost everything that the iOSphere thinks it knows about the iPhone 6 – expected to be announced Sept. 9 — is based on Apple’s past history. So, everyone “knows” the iPhone 6 will have a new processor, the A8. The reason is because every new iPhone except the 3g has had a new processor. Almost everyone is convinced Apple will make the iPhone body look more like the iPad body: rounded instead of flat sides. But beyond that, it’s all up in the air. Here are the Big Unknowns about how today’s iPhone might change.
Sapphire cover glass
It’s never been clear that Apple’s strategic investment in synthetic sapphire production was intended to create tens of millions of iPhone screens in 2014. Sapphire furnace maker GT Advanced Technologies, Apple’s partner in the project, said in early August that the Mesa, Ariz., plant was only just then ramping up to full production of the raw sapphire. The downstream cutting, shaping, grinding and polishing – all arduous and more time consuming because of sapphire’s hardness – will ramp up after that. Some observers think sapphire might appear first in the next iPod nano, and roll out to iPhones in 2015.
The iOSphere has been obsessing over bigger-than-4-inch (diagonal) screens for the iPhone. But there are a host of emerging display technologies that may have as big or bigger impact on users. Quantum dots, from vendors like Nanosys, promise to make the LCD technology favored by Apple rival OLED in brightness, color accuracy and lower power demand. Metal oxide technology, from vendors like Cbrite, promise to transform LCD backplanes (which turn pixels on/off), resulting in higher resolution, and lower costs and power demand. Shown: Nanosys’ quantum dots film in LCD stack.
Recent speculation is that the expected Apple-designed A8 system-on-chip will run at 2.0 GHz (vs. 1.3 GHz for the A7 in the iPhone 5s), or that the rumored 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch models will have, somehow, different A8 chips. But the A7’s Cyclone microarchitecture created a “desktop class” 64-bit processor for mobile devices and Apple has barely started to exploit its possibilities [See AnandTech’s march 2014 summary]. Apple could shift to a 20-nanometer (from 28nm) process, scale the clockspeed, and hold power demand steady; introduce other changes to reduce power demand overall; tweak internals to improve specific types of processing. And introduce apps that really show what Cyclone can do.
iPhone 5c and 5s currently both have 1GB of RAM. The 5c apparently uses low-power DDR2 (LPDDR2), while the 5s has LPDDR3, with a higher data rate and memory density, and greater power efficiency and bandwidth. Based on Apple’s historic RAM expansion, iPhone 6 could see a boost to 2GB of RAM, enabling the phone to handle more tasks at once. But the real benefits lie in a possible shift to LPDDR4, with 50 percent higher performance and 40 percent less energy than the fastest LPDDR3 today. Shown: SK Hynix’s 4-Gigabit LPDDR4 chip.
Many expect iPhone 6 to introduce 802.11ac Wi-Fi, but the real advance would be a new antenna design to support two 11ac spatial streams, such as found in Broadcom’s BCM4354 chip, for a maximum downstream data rate of 867Mbps using an 80-MHz channel. Apple could boost LTE performance by adding a Category 4 modem, with up to 150Mbps of downstream throughput, such as Qualcomm’s Gobi MDM9x25 LTE modem. Near field communications (NFC) for mobile payments? iBeacon, based on low energy Bluetooth 4.0, is a better bet. [See “Apple's iBeacon turns location sensing inside out”]
Larger phones mean room for physically bigger batteries, with correspondingly bigger capacity measured in watt hours. But that doesn’t automatically translate into much longer battery life, if the CPU, screen, and radios are power-hungry. The iPhone 5s battery is rated at 3.8 volts and 5.92 Watt-hours. The larger and newer Samsung Galaxy S5 has a battery rated at 3.85 volts and 10.78 WHrs. That results in 20 and 13 percent improved battery life when web browsing over LTE and Wi-Fi respectively, according to AnandTech benchmarks. Apple’s focus has been on modest boosts in battery capacity while maintaining or slightly improving battery life even as it adds processing power and higher screen resolution.
9to5Mac recently reported that iPhone 6 may include a “barometric” – pressure – sensor. AppleInsider noted that the third iOS 8 beta build added support for Apple’s M7 motion coprocessor (shown here), allowing data from accelerometer, compass and gyroscope sensors to be accessed by the new Health app. The question is how Apple might exploit the M7, introduced with the 5s. One option: the M7 as a hub for a growing number of sensors, possibly including sensors on an Apple iOS wearable [See “M is for Mystery”, by Horace Dediu], or linked with Apple CarPlay. Semicon Research call this “sensor fusion” – “combining data from multiple sensors and deriving intelligence from that data.”
In 2013, Apple introduced (as shown) two new iPhone models, the 5s as the lead phone, and the 5c as the mid-phone or mid-range phone; with the 4s now the entry-level phone. Within each model, there are different storage options, which are the basis of difference prices. Will Apple increase iPhone segmentation? The iPhone 5s is “translated” into the mid-range, perhaps being called the 6c, with a plastic body, and some internal hardware shared with the new higher-end phone. The rumored 4.7-inch phone is the new lead phone, iPhone 6; and the rumored 5.5-inch device could mark a new, more expensive iPhone model, the “6b” (for “big”) or “iPhone Air.” The existing 5c may continue as the 5c, becoming the new entry-level phone.
Scare headlines of $100 (or more) price hikes for iPhone 6 have been frequent. Yet Apple’s pricing practice has been very consistent, and the 5c is firmly set as the mid-range phone, $100 cheaper than the “lead phone,” the 5s. Blogger John Gruber wrote that “it sounds weird and somewhat un-Apple-y for them to raise the entry price for any product, let alone for their most important product.” Apple could raise the starting price for iPhone by dropping the lowest storage tier option. Or put a higher price tag on the rumored 5.5-inch jumbo-screen model.
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