iPhone 5 preview: Processor, graphics, RAM, and storage

Apple is expected to announce their next generation iPhone on September 12, 2012, and while there have been a lot of leaks about what it may look like, there have only been a few about what will power it. That's not surprising. Apple seldom gives specifics about the processors inside the iPhone, or any of their iOS devices. They'll typically announce the name of the processor, maybe the number of cores, but they'll mostly just tell us how many times faster it is than the last generation, both in terms of computing and graphical power. And the amount of RAM is has? Forget about it. We'll likely not know the full details about the iPhone 5 processor until after it's launched and after it's been thoroughly torn down by third parties. That's the Apple way. In the meantime, all we can do is speculate based on past behavior and present technology.

Apple introduced their first in-house system-on-a-chip (SoC) in 2010. Called the Apple A4, Apple used it in the original iPad and carried a version of it over to the iPhone 4. The Apple A4 uses an ARM Cortex-A8 CPU and a PowerVR SGX 535 GPU. It's fabricated at 45nm, along with some performance enhancements supplied by Instrisity, a company Apple later bought. For the iPhone, it also supports 512MB of RAM.

Apple introduced the dual-core Apple A5 SoC in 2011 with the iPad 2, and again carried a version of it over to the iPhone 4S. The Apple A5 has an ARM Cortex-A9 and a PowerVR SGX543MP2 GPU, along with 512MB of RAM. The original Apple A5 was 45nm, but a new version introduced with the Apple TV (2012) and updated iPad 2 (2012) was brought down to 32nm.

Instead of going to an Apple A6 SoC with the new iPad in 2012, Apple added a quad-core PowerVR SGX543MP4 GPU to the to the Apple A5, separated the 1GB of RAM from the package, and called it the Apple A5X.

Apple wouldn't use the Apple A5X in the iPhone 5 as well, however. At least not as is. The primary purpose of the Apple A5X chipset was to support the massive 2048x1536 Retina display that was brand new to the 3rd generation iPad platform. The iPhone went 960x640 Retina back in 2010 with the iPhone 4, so that load is already taken care of. Even if the rumors (addressed below) are accurate, and the iPhone 5 has a slightly bigger 1136x640 Retina display, that's still nothing that would require an A5X-style chipset.

It seems more likely Apple would go with the same type of general CPU and GPU performance improvements in the iPhone 5 that they delivered with the iPhone 4S. Whether or not they stay with the ARM Cortex A9 is a question. The newer, more efficient ARM Cortex A-15 is the next-generation CPU successor, much like the PowerVR 6 Rogue is the next-generation GPU. It would let the iPhone 5 do more, better, and it would be the bleeding edge option for Apple. But it may be bleeding edge enough to wait for next year's iPad 4 and iPhone 6(,1). The more conservative option is another Apple A5 processor at 32nm, tricked out with as much additional performance Apple can coax out of it. And 1GB of RAM.

More RAM is more. For everything from the amount of pages Safari can keep in memory, to the amount of apps -- especially big, greedy games -- that can be switched between without causing system lag, to the general, overall snappiness of the device itself. Apple has historically been stingy -- or efficient, depending on your point of view -- with RAM in the past. 1GB isn't excessive, but would let the iPhone 5 really let itself go.

When it comes to storage, Apple has doubled the maximum available capacity every two years. While the original iPhone shipped with an 8GB maximum, a 16GB version was introduced half a year later. The iPhone 3G also had a 16GB maximum. Both the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 have 32GB maximums. Last year, Apple doubled that again with the iPhone 4S, hitting 64GB. History, never mind pricing and NAND flash chip density, suggests we'll stay at 64GB for the iPhone 5 and for this year. What happens with a supposed iPhone 5s in another year is another story.

There's been a sketchy parts leak that purports to show an Apple A6 branded processor on the iPhone 5 logic board. At the end of the day, what Apple calls the iPhone 5 chipset is a branding decision, but since Apple controls both the software and hardware, there's no need to simply throw silicone or cores at someone else's code.

So, whether or not it's called the Apple A6, something closer to the Apple A5 rather than Apple A5X in focus and architecture would deliver just exactly the performance vs. power balance Apple wants for their next generation phone.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • The cortex A-15 coupled with the PowerVR 6 Rogue and a gig of ram would be just the perfect thing.
    It'l repeat the 3gs-->iphone 4 woww factor.
  • Next week!!!!!!!
  • Hi, slightly off topic, but could there be a possibility that new iPhone will release with display resolution of 1440 x 960 i.e. thrice of original iphone (480 x 320), so that all existing apps can work, by updating images thrice of original iphone, like what they did for iphone 4 retina display.
  • Wow. Please do tell us more.
  • No! How would current retina apps scale to that res? 1.5x?
  • thats the point, current retina apps scaled from previous generation iphone, so they have to scale with 2x, now instead of scaling apps from retina, scaled it from iphone 3g with 3x
  • You do realize that 1440x960, on a 4" screen, is well over 400 DPI. Never going to happen, or at least it would not need to happen for quite a long while, plus the retina display had a 2x scale compared to the original iPhone, which made scaling a non-issue since 1 pixel became a square of 2x2 pixels. Going by your suggestion, the scaling would be 1 pixel turning into a square of 3x3 pixels. not a very clean scaling method, and would make everything look more odd and blurry than it did with the scaling from 1 to 2x2
  • I don't remember my 3G only having 16 gigs of storage, how did I get by.
  • Apple A6 SOC (system-on-a-chip) POP (package-on-package) 32 nm CMOS LP HK+MG process 1.2 (800 MHz) GHz dual-core (quad-core) ARM Cortex A9 CPU with 32 KB L1 cache + 32 KB and 1 MB L2 cache 1 GB LPDDR2 RAM 200 MHz quad-core PowerVR SGX543MP4 GPU supporting DirectX 9, Open GL 2.1, Open CL 1.1 Qualcomm MDM9615 with support for LTE (FDD and TDD) (75.5 Mbps), DC-HSPA+ (42 Mbps), HSPA+ (21 Mbps), EV-DO Rev-B and TD-SCDMA Broadcom BCM 4330 802.11a/b/g/n MAC/Baseband/Radio with Integrated Bluetooth 4.0+HS and FM Transceiver Omnivision OV8830 Color CMOS 8 Megapixel (3264 x 2448) Image Sensor with OmniBSI-2 Technology ARM Cortex A15 processors are not market ready
    PowerVR Series 6 (Rogue) graphics processors are not market ready
    802.11ac baseband processors don't meet Apple requirements at this time
  • Sorry if this is a dumb question, but what do you mean by "1.2 (800 MHz) GHz dual-core (quad-core) ARM Cortex A9 CPU" specifically the "dual-core (quad-core)" is what strikes my confusion. Thanks!
  • I'm new to the Apple world since Sprint got the iPhone last fall (then also switched to the iMac and got an iPad etc.), so my question is: is it generally accepted that these advance leaks of dates for announcements and releases are really "leaks"?! Do you experts in everything Apple think they do this on purpose? Just curious....
  • Yes they do. It's excellent marketing and keeps people holding off of other platforms because they want the newest iPhones.
  • Will the new iPhone be able to do Voice and Data over 3G on Verizon like the thunderbolt could or will it just be relegated to LTE?
  • Short answer: no. The Thunderbolt & Rezound did voice over 3G because they had two modems built in to the processor that allowed that function. Qualcomm has been very stingy with that tech on Verizon due to Verizon's refusal to adopt CDMA 2 which does allow simultaneous voice/data over 3G at speeds & voice quality that could rival HSPA+ that AT&T touts as 'faux 4G.' I wouldn't look for it on the next iPhone either.
  • EVDO rev. B. gained almost zero carrier traction. Even in Canada Bell and Telus switched to HSPA+ instead of rev. B.
  • Yeah it's a shame too because it wasn't a bad tech. It could have been relatively minor retooling of current tower infrastructure as well. But Qualcomm, like you say Rene hasn't been able to give it away & Verizon went with LTE. Rev B could have also been quite a perk for a rural area like I live that has limited data options & won't even sniff LTE for another yr probably & by then it'll be so crowded it will have slowed to a crawl too. *sigh* Oh well. We'll know in 8 days or so what Apple will do. And shockingly, hold your breath iMore peeps, I might buy one depending on what I see.
  • evdo rev b was never going to take off because its a 'multi-carrier evolution of the Rev. A specification' which means to have to play nice with you're competition and have their customers use your bandwidth and vise versa
  • Woow I like the picture of the iPhone 5 especially the red iPhone!!! Look really great... hope that Apple will come with more colors, i choose the red one :D www.iDevizes.com
  • Oh dear.. this really is not very impressive. The Galaxy SIII is already very powerful and the fact that the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 is more powerful than the SIII will really make the iphone 5 a simple phone.
  • What you are missing here is that both of those devices you mention need to be more powerful for Android to even have some semblance of being as smooth as iOS. The proprosed specs of the new iPhone are more than enough to run the latest software, including retina applications tailored to a larger screen. If you think that specs alone make for a better experience then stick to Android.
  • And none of it really matters. He has his opinion & you have yours. What works for each of you is different.
  • its not really what is "good for either of them", but rather what is good for the OS. If one OS needs a heafty processor to run well and smooth, while another can do the same with lower spec hardware, that is where it truly matters. A well written and optimized GUI (and other software) can perform well on lower spec hardware. Just look at the game console market for examples of what can be done via optimizing for a limited hardware platform, and those are on a 5-10 year lifecycle with little to no revisions. there are opinions, and then there are facts when it comes to hardware requirements, software optimizations and overall performance.
  • So these 'facts' you are referring to, which I don't dispute at all, nor was I trying to, are nothing more than apples & oranges. Each of these platforms has advantages/disadvantages compared to the other. Your anecdotal evidence, & that's all it is, doesn't point to the supposed lag of Android that absolutely nobody in the real world sees or is affected by. I can sit at this PC all day & point out the multitude of functions it can do & programs/apps it runs circles around a Mac with. And guess what? If somebody uses a Mac, & it works for them, that's all that matters. So basically your reply to mine is just more pointless debate over my phone is better than yours. The best phone is the one in your hand. That can be Android, iPhone, BlackBerry, or even Windows phone. Don't you get that yet? Or should we keep going debating your facts & mine?
  • Just trying to point this out here( DONT TAKE OFFENSE), I think both of you are kinda saying the same thing. Where as one OS requires certain hardware to run, it also can mean people who need that hardware can use the device. If an iPhone has a dual-core processor and it runs extremely smooth but an Android device has a quad-core processor needed by the person for whatever need (face it without optimization in theory the iPhone would technically be outdated even Tegra 2 SOCs feel like a Snapdragon S1 due to NO OPTIMIZATION AND POOR GRAPHIC DRIVERS). So yeah that's me trying to interpret both of your excellent paragraphs or whatever you what to call them. I enjoyed reading them truthfully.
  • Mate don't listen to the fandroids and apple haters. What your saying is spot on. I tried the sgs 2 an the HTC one X and they both had that ugly lag you talk about which is inherent of androids OS. I studied computer science for a year and definitely have some idea about coding. I'm not an industry expert but you don't have to be to realise what the poster I'm replying to is trying to say. It's true and that's fact. You get so many of these android fanatics who try and argue every point even when they are wrong and it's frustrating as hell. It's well documented that androids issue is inherent cause of the way it's written. That's why anything short of the best CPU and great GPU makes android run like garbage. Comparatively, an older 3GS still runs great and that runs on a 600mhz single core is it? Like the guy said, there's opinion and then there's fact. Android is good, it's very affordable, and can reach a market that apple isn't in. But everyone I know still prefers an OS device over the android system mainly cause not everyone is not a tech geek like me as well, so they usually just want the smoothest, best built and stylish device. Plastic and tablet sizing anyone?
  • Yet another example of a supposed 'well informed' commentary. And of course you are so knowledgeable because you studied Conley science for a yr. Never mind those of us working in this field. How's the air up there in Unrealville?
  • couldn't agree more, to add to that the reason of lag is its written in java, which runs on jvm, which is platform independent, but its not as coupled to hardware as when its is written on some other low level language such as C. ios is written in objective c which is a superset of c, so i m pretty much sure internal code is written in c only. Now, java does memory management on its own, which has its various advantages, but due to that it has one major disadvantage also, whenever memory reaches to certain threshold, system calls garbage collector to retrieve the unused memory, and that time if some ui related operation is going on, than u might feel a bit of lag. So to overcome that many manufacturers, start giving more Ram, so higher the ram, less chances of reaching threshold in normal day to day use work, but still there could be a possibility of lag at any time. So, don't compare two different mobiles only on the basis of hardware rather compare them on the basis of platform, which is a combination of both hardware and software. To sum up, android is resource hungry (and also has true multi-tasking) so it requires a better hardware, on any day with same hardware ios will beat android.
  • just let the iPhone out and compare than compare their rendering of web pages, games .... than we will see who is better :D
  • Don't know if iPhone 5 can make its mark in terms of new specs. As Samsung has already done some wonders with Display and even processors.