Heart of the machine: Why Galaxy S8 can't go core-to-core with iPhone 7

You have four people in the family but only one of you has a driver's license. Sure, you can get through household chores in a quarter of the time, but anything that requires a car? Not so much. The same is true for processors. If half the tasks are serial and half are parallel, a processor could have infinite cores at its disposal, but all those cores crushing their half won't help with the other half one bit.

It's easy to be blinded by the numbers. Cores can be the new megapixels. But every once in a while you see something that brings you right back to reality. Case in point: recent performance comparisons between Apple's iPhone 7, launched last September, and Samsung's Galaxy S8, launching now.

Battle of the benchmarks

The Apple A10 Fusion system-on-a-chip (SOC) in iPhone 7 mops the floor with both the Samsung Exynos 8895 and Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 found in the Galaxy S8 when it comes to single threaded operations.

Both Samsung and Qualcomm's chipsets do perform faster than Apple's A10 Fusion for multicore operations, but there are four high performance and four high-efficiency cores in the Galaxy S8 to the two high performance and two high-efficiency cores in iPhone 7. It literally takes twice the cores to edge ahead in the results. (Hi, meet Amdahl's Law. ) And, it turns out, their efficiency cores aren't anywhere nearly as efficient as Apple's.

Apple has obviously seen the value in over-delivering on single threaded operations and it shows. For things like interface and interactions, that's often the bottleneck. No matter how fast modern chipsets can swap, if the experience feels slow then the phone feels slow.

In other words, it's really no mystery why iPhone scrolls better and feels more responsive than anything else on the market — monstrous single-threaded processing enables it to.

Making silicon super

There's an old story about Steve Jobs wanting sushi at the Caffe Macs, the campus eatery. So, he got the best sushi chef he could find to make it. Likewise chipsets. When it became clear iPhone and future products would require custom silicon, the story goes Steve Jobs set out to find the best chip designers in the world.

That's now evolved into the hardware technologies org, led by senior vice president, Johny Srouji.

Part of what makes it unique is that Apple doesn't sell its chipsets so it doesn't have to operate like a silicon merchant. It doesn't have to worry about the shelf-life of each generation. It doesn't have to concern itself with the demands of marketing, markup, or the interests of multiple, competing vendors.

Apple's platform technologies team doesn't have to worry about being hobbled or constrained in any way — all they have to do is run iOS and iOS apps faster than anything else on the planet. That's their only customer.

It makes for an incredibly appealing work environment for legends of the industry and the best and brightest new minds, a startling number of whom have now found a home at Apple. It's a dream job that doesn't just let them dream but actively encourages them make those dreams into a reality.

We first saw what kinds of results the team could produce with the Apple A7. Rumors of it being 64-bit had run rampant yet few in the industry believed them at the time. Competitors had been content to languish at 32-bit with little or no impetus to push forward. Then iPhone 5s was announced and, instantly, everything changed.

Apple immediately leapfrogged everyone else in the industry and, in the span of a few minutes, became not just its leader but its driving force. That might sound hyperbolic but, in hindsight, it's proven true.

At first, many of us, myself included, struggled to understand why. Most fell victim to the old cliché of more bits only being useful to address larger amounts of memory, which didn't seem important on mobile. A few of us settled onto the cleaner instruction set or improved hardware security as the rationale behind the change. But what Apple really did with A7 was completely re-architect the chipset itself. That was the leap forward. 64-bit was just gravy.

Tighter integration

Apple has long believed that tightly integrating both software and hardware allows the company to deliver a better experience to customers. These days that's expanded to include services on one end and chipsets on the other.

It means the platform technologies team can work with the software engineer group, and industrial and human interface design groups, to make exactly the atoms to support exactly the bits and pixels Apple plans to ship.

Silicon has to work years ahead, of course, which means there's a predictive element to it not unlike shooting an arrow at another arrow that needs to not only hit it in mid air but ensure both continue on to the bullseye. But the result is, when new features like the camera team's depth-of-field effect for Portrait Mode, the image signal processor team has built in everything they need to support it.

Conversely, Apple's silicon team also doesn't have to carry the baggage of competing vendors and devices. For example, Apple A10 doesn't have to support Microsoft's Direct X. It only and exactly has to support Apple's specific technologies and implementations.

In other words, what iOS wants fast, the A-team can deliver fast.

Chipset intelligence

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Computer Vision — those are the buzzwords on every keynote stage and in every Silicon Valley startup pitch these days. As a side effect, it's forced Apple to be more open about its own endeavors in the space as well.

For example, last year we saw how Apple's chipsets could accelerate face recognition so it was possible on-device. That way, you didn't have to upload all your friends, relatives, and children to the cloud just to get them tagged. Your personal photos could remain personal.

Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, also let it slip that Apple was using AI to improve things like battery life.

That kind of technology only truly works when you control everything from the pixels to the chips. And it's an advantage not even Samsung enjoys who, despite making its own Exynos chipset, is somehow still unable to extract itself from the clutches of Qualcomm in the U.S. If you can't rely on a specific chipset being there, you have to program for the lowest common denominators.

Peaks and geeks-benched

Feature sets are more important than chipsets. Apple never shipped NFC, it shipped Apple Pay. Likewise, specs and benchmarks don't matter anywhere nearly as much as user experience. But it's still the chipsets that enable those features and ensure that experience.

One of the most fascinating aspects of all the attention being paid to iPhone 7's performance in benchmarks relative to the Galaxy S8 is that it's incidental — a circumstance of great design and singular philosophy.

For A10 Fusion, pushing maximum performance on bigger cores meant leaving a gap on the low end. Pairing the high-performance cores with high-efficiency cores, and creating a performance controller to intelligently manage the switching all-but-invisibly, eliminated that gap. That controller gave Apple not only the best of both processing worlds, but a significant advantage over chipsets lacking those smarts.

For the graphics cores, Apple uses a different, "wide and slow" approach. They can handle loads as efficiently as possible but that also gives them the headroom to handle spikes when they need to. Having 8 lanes on a highway helps all the traffic flow better, even the Ferrari when it needs to hit full throttle.

You can catch that supercar hitting over 200 if that's all you're looking for, but you miss all the other throughput that's getting handled super-efficiently around it.

In other words, performance and power-efficiency go hand-in-hand. They can't be viewed separately.

20 more letters in the alphabet

What's become increasingly fascinating of late isn't just Apple's A-series SOCs. It's the custom CPU and GPU inside them. It's the now-integrated M-series sensor fusion hubs. It's the image signal processor and the video encode/decode blocks. It's the controllers that let flash storage on an iPhone be accessed as fast as it is on a MacBook.

Recently, we've seen Apple embed a variant of the Watch's S1 system-in-package in the MacBook Pro as the T1 to handle Touch ID, Apple Pay, and other security systems. And we've seen W1 make Bluetooth all but painless on the AirPods and Beats Wireless headphones.

It's not that Apple wants to make every component inside every device but it feels very much like Apple wants to own every component that makes a real, palpable, differentiated experience for customers.

When Apple introduced W1, I joked that there were still 20-odd more letters in the alphabet for future Apple silicon. But the results we're already seeing with iPhone 7 vs. Galaxy S8 are no joke.

I'll spare you the cliché of "just wait until Apple puts ARM in the MacBook", but Intel should be quaking in its fabs as well. Better yet, it should be lacing up its runners and getting back in the race.

In a world where Qualcomm is more concerned with making great silicon than holding the rest of the industry ransom, where Samsung deploys custom chips up and down its line, where Nvidia ships monster mobile CPU and GPU all its own, everyone benefits. Customers most of all.

Until that happens, Apple's singular drive to make the best chipsets, to treat performance and power efficiency as one and the same, and to design silicon the specifically supports software and services, will continue to provide them with a commanding lead.

The latest round of benchmarks simply highlight that. Again.

iPhone X + iPhone 8