Imagining iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C: Apple A7 processor, RAM, and Storage

Imagining iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c: Apple A7 processor, RAM, and Storage

Analyzing rumors and speculation surrounding Apple's 2013 iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c systems-on-a-chip, memory, NAND flash capacity, and more

UPDATE: Apple has officially announced the iPhone 5s and we've now got a full Apple A7 processor preview, with everything you need to know!

If Apple holds to pattern, we're in the tock year of their tick tock hardware release schedule. That means that while we may not get any exciting new external designs, we should be in for some amazing new internals, including the system-on-a-chip, storage, radios, cameras, and other components. Faster. Better. Stronger. At least for the iPhone 5s. The iPhone 5c will likely be the exception that proves the rule, becoming the less expensive option by saving all its changes for the outside. So what will all that translate into when the silicon hits our hands?

iPhone 5s: Going Rogue

Rumored Apple A7 chipset gets rumored speed increase, motion companion core, 64-bit testing

Apple started designing their own custom processors with the Apple A4 system-on-a-chip (SoC) for the original iPad in 2010. They brought that SoC to the the iPhone 4 later the same year. It sported an ARM Cortex-A8 CPU, a PowerVR SGX 535 GPU, and 512MB of RAM fabricated at 45nm, along with some performance enhancements supplied by Instrisity, a company Apple later bought. With the iPad 2 in 2011, Apple introduced the dual-core Apple A5 SoC. It upped the ante to a ARM Cortex-A9, a PowerVR SGX543MP2 GPU, and 512MB of RAM, and the iPhone 4S got it later that year as well. The Apple A5 was originally fabricated at 45nm but Apple reduced it to 32nm in 2012 for the updated iPad 2, Apple TV 3, and iPod touch 5. They also added a quad-core PowerVR SGX543MP4 and introduced the Apple A5X for the Retina iPad 3.

For the Apple A6 SoC in the 2012 iPhone 5, instead of sticking with the Cortex A9 or moving on the new ARM A15, they did some more aggressive, and a lot more impressive. They licensed the ARM v7s instruction set and rolled something uniquely their own. It was a 32nm CMOS dual-core Apple processor -called Swift - that could run from between 800MHz and 1.2GHz. Likewise, instead of going with the dual-core PowerVR SGX543MP2 graphics chip found in the iPhone 4S, or the giant quad-core PowerVR SGX543MP4 found in the iPad 3, Apple went with the triple-core PowerVR SGX543MP3 GPU. And they topped it all off with 1GB of RAM. The iPad 4 later got the Apple A6X with a quad-core PowerVR SGX543MP4 GPU.

With the Apple A7, we'll likely see a second generation Swift processor, benefitting from everything Apple learned from the first, and the advancements they've made since then. Like Intel's Haswell on the Mac, that could mean less of a speed boost and more of an efficiency boost, allowing the iPhone 5s to do more while slurping less power. Let's face it, the iPhone 5 is plenty fast enough for what most people do most of the time on mobile. It's battery life that still causes the grief. If Apple and their fab can reduce the die size down below 32nm, that would help a great deal as well.

The only exception to this might be graphics. iOS 7 is built on a gaming-style physics and particle engine. All those gaussian blur shaders come at a price, however. Apple has stuck with PowerVR graphics processors up until now, and while they could always get into custom GPUs the way they've gotten into custom CPUs, PowerVR has their Series 6 graphics core ready and waiting. Codenamed Rogue, they're OpenGL 4.x compliant, and no doubt offer other advantages.

One of the biggest strengths of the Apple A-series is their Image Signal Processor (ISP). Thanks to that little miracle worker, the iPhone 5 was able to produce better balanced, better looking photos than its physical camera would otherwise allow. It's what let the year-old iPhone 5 outshoot the newer, bigger, optically image stabilized (OIS) cameras in competing phones when it came to general purpose, every day photography. We'll imagine the iPhone 5s camera in a separate post, but it's more than likely the Apple A7 will include a just as good, if not substantially better ISP this time around.

Rumors of Apple testing 64-bit chipsets have made the rounds recently as well. Whether that means 64-bit CPUs, GPUs, or both is unclear, as is whether they were only tests or something meant for actual production. On the desktop, 64-bit architecture allowed for much higher amounts of addressable memory, which allowed for much bigger images and videos to be processed. What bigger bites, rather than faster bites, mean for mobile is less obvious.

Likewise, Apple is notoriously frugal when it comes to RAM. The iPhone and iPhone 3G had 128mb of RAM. The iPhone 3GS had 256MB. The iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S had 512MB. The iPhone 5 had 1GB. While I'd always love more RAM, I wouldn't be surprised if Apple stuck with 1GB for the iPhone 5s.

NAND Flash storage is another story. The first iPhone had 4G or 8GB, though 16GB was introduced later. The iPhone 3G stuck with 8GB and 16GB. The iPhone 3G introduced 32GB and the iPhone 4 stuck with it. The iPhone 4S introduced 64GB and the iPhone 5 stuck with that as well. Given that pattern, and that the iPad 4 got a 128GB model earlier this year, it's not impossible to imagine. Even in an era of Cloud storage, nothing beats local. There've been rumors about it already, and if the higher density chips are in line with Apple's bill of goods, it'd be great to see a 128GB iPhone.

Whether or not that NAND flash storage will be any faster is another matter. The current NAND flash saturates well before USB 3.0 transfer speeds, making them of no value to iOS devices. We'll address that in a future article.

Battery is even more interesting. The original iPhone had a 1400mAh battery. After a dip down to 1150mAh for the iPhone 3G, iPhone battery capacity has been steadily increasing every generation. The iPhone 3GS was 1219mAh. The iPhone 4 was 1420mAh, the iPhone 4S was 1430mAh, and the iPhone 5 was 1440mAh. It's possible apple could squeeze even more into the iPhone 5s, maybe the same incremental improvement to 1450mAh or similar. It's also possible they'll figure out yet another magic trick to work around the limitations of battery chemistry.

iPhone 5c: Staying quo

In contrast to the iPhone 5s, the iPhone 5c just might have all its differences on the outside. Underneath that polycarbonate rear shell might just beat the heart of an iPhone 5 from end to end. That would mean an Apple A6 processor - likely not die shrunk, but you never know - with 1GB of RAM and a 1440mAh battery. What storage options Apple decides to offer is the only wild-card. 64GB would seem to be the theoretical maximum anyway. Maybe Apple will stick to lower storage options for the less-expensive iPhone option. Maybe there won't even be options, and one storage size will be it for everyone. We'll have to wait and see.

More to come!

We'll be imagining a lot more about the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c, including designs, screens, cameras, chipsets, finger-print readers and more over the next week, so stay tuned. We'll only know for certain, however, when someone at Apple holds it - or them - up on stage, presumably on September 10.

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, The TV Show, Vector, ZEN & TECH, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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There are 14 comments. Add yours.

jtarrio says:

The iPhone 4 also seemed "plenty fast enough" for what people used to do on mobile, and yet it struggles today with the latest iOS releases and modern apps (I still haven't tried it with iOS 7, but typically iPhones have sucked with three iOS releases after the one they launched with, if they were supported at all). If they launch an iPhone 5S that is not significantly faster than iPhone 5 I'm thinking it might have performance issues with iOS 8 or iOS 9. That's what concerns me about the iPhone 5C...

MikhailT says:

Like what @jtarrio said, don't compare the current iOS *experience* against the hardware that is going to be around for another 2 years. That means iOS 8 and 9 at the very least.

RAM needs to be bumped to 2GB in the iPad for sure, I can't imagine Apple not doing it and if they don't, they're a cheap bastard then. The refreshing bug in Safari is very annoying. It might be enough for some apps that doesn't need to load a lot of data in memory but apps like Safari with multiple tabs, and so on, do need more memory.

Rene Ritchie says:

The iPad is way more demanding, hardware wise, than the iPhone.

Rene Ritchie says:

No, the iPhone 4 was always bad. Like any first gen Retina device, it paid the Retina tax. Same with iPad 3 and the current Retina MacBook Pros. Retina pushes the hardware, especially RAM and GPU really, really hard.

But the iPhone Retina tax has been paid, the iPhone 5 flies, and while future-proofing is always an issue, it's not something Apple plans on past 1-2 generations.

It's absolutely a valid point, but it's not a priority for Apple. Hitting their bill of goods and optimizing as much as they can, are.

SockRolid says:

Actually, the 5C might enable Apple to reduce the support demands for future iOS releases. Right now, Apple seems to want to ship the latest iOS version on all iPhones that it sells. That means iOS 6 had to support the iPhone 4, 4S, and 5 over the past year. Three generations of iPhone.

But the 5C might allow Apple to eliminate the 1-year old and 2-year old iPhones from its lineup. Why? Because Apple might be able to sell the subsidized 5C for $99 (16GB, multiple color options) and $0 (8GB, black only.) Thus, Apple wouldn't need to keep any older iPhone models in their lineup. Each year the iPhone range would be all-new. As in "the new iPhone" and "the new iPhone C."

Of course, the "C" model would contain most of the previous year's high-end model's components. But the net effect is that Apple wouldn't need to ship any iPhone with a processor more than 1 generation older than the latest processor. And, if they really wanted to, they could drop iOS support for anything but the current lineup.

Of course, I suppose you could then complain about not being able to install the latest version of iOS on your 2-year old iPhone. And you could also yell "Android-like fragmentation!" But whatever. You can't have it both ways.

K Sec says:

Apple better make some God Damn good software engineering if they were going to stick to 1GB Ram. I thought the whole purpose of using LPDDR3 even in MBA was to get the lineup for using LPDDR3 2GB in iPhone 5S.

I dont get how NAND and USB3.0 are related. As i am pretty sure the NAND isn't connected via USB3.0 interface.

And Unless Apple actually were ARM, otherwise no 64bit. ARMv8 is a clean break from ARMv7 it makes sense for Apple to start testing it NOW and do software optimization as well as hardware and so on.

There will definitely be the new Qualcomm 4G Baseband Chip. And it surprise me till today Apple still hasn't licenses others 4G tech to save cost.

Dionte says:

IWant 2 gigs of rams, quiero que yo quiero yo lo quiero ahora.

CORYK333 says:

LMAO!!! All these in-depth, intelligent comments above about tech, processors, specs, etc....and this comment is what we end with!!!

impaler says:

Good article, interesting detail on stuff that Apple rarely publishes.

Anyone know why the first A-series chip was an A4? What happened to the A1 through A3?

GlennRuss says:

If the battery gets any bigger, they will have to put a micro mini fan in it. When it gets hot, or even warm while charging, things start to break down. On looks, I think it will be some time before we see a radical change in design. The one they have now is beautiful, and just works.

Jaguarr40 says:

I think in regards to the first part of this article regarding the proposed 5S phone about to be announced this month, This information the Rene has provided seems to me to appear to be the best and closest to what we expect to see Apple announce in a few short days.
Once that announcement comes out and true specs are given I am sure including myself many people will be making up their mind on what they are going to do with or without an upgrade.
I know that if the info given so far far turns out to be true and this is not just a small update to the 5 rather than a major upgrade with the faster A7 processor I will for sure being using my upgrade from my perfectly fine 4S to the new phone. In 22 flawless months with my 4S without ever having to visit the genius bar at my local Apple store where I bought it, I will be going back there for the newest phone in Apple's stable.
I will be looking forward to the Sept. 10th announcement and hope this is a major upgrade. As always i will wait a month to see how the new phone is doing and reading public comments from iMore of course and if all good, I will be visiting my Apple store on a day off.

Keith Wallace says:

I don't get the idea behind the 5C, if these thoughts are correct. If it's just a polycarbonate iPhone 5, what is its market? Will it cost more than the 5? Less? The same? Will the iPhone 5 just be phased out completely (meaning no more shipments anywhere)? It would make little sense for the 5C to exist if it's just a 5 in a different shell, as Apple has held the line of continuing production on the previous 2 models, selling them at $0 (right now, the 4) and $100 (right now, the 4S) on-contract. It just seems like there has to be a legitimate differentiation, or Apple will have to stop the current practice.

igeorgetaylor says:

I would like to think that Apple would give the 5S 1.5 GB of RAM and the 5C 1 GB, but they will probably give the 5c lower and the 5s 1 GB

nerdtastic says:

"If Apple and their fab can reduce the die size down below 32nm, that would help a great deal as well."

A 32nm die size is laughable. I think you meant to say "reduce the transistor size down below 32nm". All indications are that they will stick to 32nm as TSMC is not ready to mass produce 20nm as of yet.

I also have a feeling that they will put their ancient A5 processor in the 5c. Apple is under tremendous pressure to keep the cost of this device low and I think they would choose to skimp on the SOC which is something that a majority of their users won't notice as much as if they had skimped on the quality of the screen or camera. Even though the A5 is ancient by smartphone SOC standards, it still performs well enough not to be a major pain when using it (although the paltry 512mb ram and the consequent constant restarting of entire applications and constant reloading of browser tabs is a little ridiculous).

Consider that even the iPad mini which isn't exactly budget priced still uses the A5. I read in a daring fireball post that compares the 5c to the new iPod touch. I agree with Gruber. The iPod mini with camera is around $300. Add in the necessary radios and you come close to the price which makes sense for Apple to sell that 5c at.