Is Apple working on a next-gen iPhone with customized multi-core chips?


intel_quadBy now it’s an accepted fact that Apple has loosed a fleet of unannounced iPhones for real-world testing. And, true to Apple’s usually secretive ways, the new “iPhone 2,1” feature-set is still a mystery. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t speculate on what Apple has in store for the iPhone-loving world.

While the iPhone 2,1 might simply be an iPhone Nano intended to appeal to the lower-end market, we may soon see a next-generation iPhone hitting market with multi-core silicon and upgraded feature-sets in tow. Apple has been busy this past year making business deals that sets the stage for a completely customized iPhone handset – let’s take a look at what may be in store for the next-gen iPhone.

A look inside the PowerVR SGX architecture

A look inside the PowerVR SGX architecture

A graphics powerhouse
The next major overhaul of the iPhone platform might just see the iPhone coming into its own as a graphics-savvy gaming platform. Apple has been confirmed to have licensed PowerVR graphics technologies from Imagination Technologies in a bid to turn the iPhone into a data-crunching and gaming phenom the likes of which dedicated gaming consoles would cower beneath.

Imagination Technologies already provides the PowerVR graphics core lying within the Samsung-made ARM silicon that powers the current iPhone and iPhone 3G – you can thank Imagination Technologies for your iPhone’s 3D graphics performance. The new PowerVR SGX technology secured by Apple promises to take things up a notch with OpenGL ES 2.0 support and true HD video handling.

It’s only a matter of time before we see Apple introducing these new PowerVR SGX graphics cores in an upcoming iPhone chipset.

Next-generation iPhone chips
As good as Apple is at designing trick hardware, they Cupertino-based iPhone maker isn’t a one-stop manufacturer. Apple still needs the help of third-party component integrators and suppliers to turn a particular tech-vision into reality. Case in point, Apple taps Samsung as its supplier for the iPhone’s ARM-based processor.

And, therein lies the next piece of our next-generation iPhone puzzle. Samsung recently entered into a manufacture-only licensing deal with Imagination Technologies. The deal allows Samsung to incorporate the PowerVR SGX graphics core into their ARM-based chips. Samsung provides Apple with the processing chips for the iPhone and iPhone3G, and Samsung’s PowerVR SGX license bodes well for Samsung’s future as the processing-chip supplier for the next-gen iPhone. Keep in mind, Apple licensed the rights to use PowerVR SGX technologies as they see fit and Samsung is positioned to manufacture the actual chips.

Chip design
So, how is all this going to come together? Let’s answer that question with another question. Remember Apple’s acquisition of fabless chip-design firm PA Semi? Right, of course you do. It’s been long known that Apple wants to go in-house for designing customized chip architectures. The company’s acquisition of PA Semi allows Apple to design their own customized processors and send the designs to a chip-maker – which is where Samsung comes in.

Samsung is lined up quite nicely to start stamping out chips based on designs from Apple’s new in-house chip architects. Samsung’s PowerVR SGX manufacturing license deal allows Samsung to tread on Imagination Technologies’ intellectual property as they manufacture Apple’s customized processors.

It’s not too far a stretch to see Apple designing their own chips, complete with PowerVR SGX technology, and Samsung standing by to put the specified gold on silicon.

IBM Cell. Just beautiful.

IBM Cell. Just beautiful.

Multi-core
What’s important here is Apple’s motivation for wanting to have complete control over chip design. Simply put, Apple wants to incorporate multi-core functionality into future iPhone chips. And, the only way to ensure that future processors will meet Apple’s exacting standards was to buy their own chip-design firm and crank out their own chips. Customized chips would also help differentiate the iPhone lineup from most other mobile phones on market.

Apple recently announced their new multi-core, parallel-processing technology called “Grand Central.” The technology was developed to help future version of Mac OS X (like SnowLeopard) to more effectively leverage the multi-core processors that are used throughout Apple’s computer lineup. But, it has more far-reaching implications for the iPhone. The iPhone’s iPhone OS is based on the Mac OS and will likely work with Grand Central technology.

There’s also talk of Apple pushing to bring OpenCL to the iPhone. OpenCL was developed to help parcel out data into bite-sized chunks for processing by the hundreds of parallel processors inside a GPU (possibly provided by Imagination Technologies). Leveraging OpenCL technology could be another way for Apple to introduce multi-core computing to the mobile space. And, with Imagination Technologies’ high-tech graphics core in play, Apple is well positioned to pull the multi-core trigger.

It’s not a question of if Apple will launch a multi-core iPhone, but when Apple will unveil their multi-core iPhone with advanced graphics performance.

A complete package
Going on the assumption that Apple has already begun development of the next-generation iPhone (and, really, there is no reason to believe otherwise), Apple is likely hard at work developing a new iPhone. The iPhone will likely sport a multi-core chip design that takes advantage of Apple’s parallel processing Grand Central technology, and incorporating the new PowerVR SGX graphics cores for enhanced graphics performance. And, with Samsung ready to answer Apple’s call for a custom-designed multi-core chip featuring the PowerVR SGX core, Apple’s plans for the next-generation iPhone look a little less mysterious.

The iPhone 2,1 may not be the multi-core iPhone that we’re all holding our collective breaths for, but there’s little doubt that Apple is working on a new iPhone with parallel processing power coming out the wazoo.

  • Constable Odo

    I thought Tim Cook had said Apple wouldn’t be introducing a Nano-class handset. Most of this article points to increased processing speeds and graphics handling. Seems like this stuff would be more useful to an upgraded current iPhone and maybe even a more expensive model. I hope Apple doesn’t have to waste it’s time and technology on some low-end handsets. It doesn’t seem like there’d be much profit in that direction. I want to see Apple continue to dominate the high-end.

  • Sean

    This would certainly fall in line with the rumor that the new iPhone will have video conferencing capabilities.

    I am truly hoping for a larger Touch. In the 9″-13″ range. It would be Apple’s netbook/gaming device, and it would be a game changer for both markets. Could you imagine a 9″ Touch that had the capability to play Call of Duty 5, with motion control?………I smell a very hot trend here.

  • Hammer

    I doubt that any of this tech would hit the touch first. Nor do I see a netbook on the horizon. The iphone is Apple’s netbook, for now. Constable Odo is accurate in foreseeing that the new tech will be in the new iphone, not in a smaller package. I don’t know why people keep talking about the Nano iPhone. It doesn’t exist, at least not from Apple. Sure there are a lot of Chinese knockoffs, but that just goes to show how popular the device is in China. Apple does need to make a more powerful iPhone due to more and more desktop apps being ported to the device. It blows away the other mobile platforms in how easy it is to create an app, plus it’s more powerful since it’s not stripped down so much as say Windows Mobile.

    Give it another year and you will see Microsoft apps on the app store.

  • Sally

    It seems as imagination technologies are becoming mission critical for apples iphone developments. Wondering what chips their competition have on hand by now.

  • Stefan Constantinescu

    Great article Will, load of original content here and I like how you pieced together various bits of news to offer up a truly probably hypothesis.

    We can only wish it comes true!

  • davesmall

    I think Apple wants to make it much more difficult for competitors to copy their designs. One way to do that it so get away from using off-the-shelf processors and chipsets. I think they’re going to up the ante on performance, graphics, and battery life.

    The iPhone Nano sounds a wet dream on the part of Wall Street financial bloggers and not something that Apple would be likely to produce. The present iPhone screen is about the smallest possible without making the touch screen keyboard too cramped for practical use. Bigger is better when it comes to screen size.

    Even Apple must be surprised with the incredible reception given to the online App Store for iPhone applications. I personally have about 100 or so on my own iPhone (and I don’t do games). Developers are attracted to the iPhone much like June Bugs are attracted to headlights. The App Store is and engine that can drive their iPhone business much like iTunes drives their iPod business. Competitors can come up with something that looks a bit like an iPhone but they’ll have trouble offering anything remotely approaching the amazing App Store.

    As the number of useful apps on your iphone increases, so does the frequency of use and the load on your battery. The good news is that people love their iPhones and are using them for many tasks. The bad news is that heavy usage means a greater and greater challenge to achieve long lasting battery life.

  • alex

    who cares about graphics i want a video camera and multimedia messaging

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