The 64-bit Processor Bandwagon

by Daniel Mandell | 12/05/2013

Shortly after Apple announced its iPhone 5s would feature a 64-bit processor, Samsung quickly followed that it was also developing a 64-bit processor for mobile devices. Other major companies have since announced their intentions to release 64-bit mobile processors in the near future too; reports rumor that Broadcom, NVIDIA, and Qualcomm could unveil their new processors as early as January at CES 2014. This led us to ask, how much real value does a 64-bit processor currently bring to mobile products?

32-bit processors can only utilize a maximum 4GB of RAM. With access to 264 memory locations, 64-bit can process significantly more data. However, memory requirements in current mobile devices are far from reaching this 4 GB ceiling. For example, the iPhone 5s only features 1 GB of memory, in terms of RAM, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is equipped with 3 GB. Clearly, memory is not a major concern in the development of mobile devices in comparison to other factors and would not drive the need for 64-bit processors in this arena.

Not only can the 64-bit architecture process larger quantities of data, but more memory locations increase data processing velocity. However, while hardware capabilities are improved, software is still a step behind. Lagging software is forcing processor OEMs to develop 64-bit processors with backwards compatibility for 32-bit software environments, as seen with Apple’s A7 chip and upcoming 64-bit processors based on the ARMv8 architecture. Yet, since 32-bit programming platforms are not optimized for 64-bit processors, devices cannot take full advantage of the amplified volume of memory locations and run with only marginal performance gains. Certain applications may even run slower since they are working in a sub-optimal 32-bit environment.

Currently, it seems most companies are developing 64-bit processors to remain competitive with Apple’s A7, despite a lack of drastic improvements to performance. Consumer perception and marketing drive current development so companies can have a 64-bit processor in their specifications. Yet in the longer run, the 32-bit to 64-bit shift could alter mobile devices’ role to the average consumer. Mobile devices may pose as an increasingly viable and competitive alternative to PCs, able to process data at comparable speeds. Such a transition is still years away, though, as even the transition from 16-bit to 32-bit for PCs took a around 10 years.

As companies rush to release their own 64-bit mobile processors, much investment in R&D is spent inefficiently on creating working products and not necessarily optimizing embedded hardware to its full potential. With branding as the driver for development, the current use of 64-bit processors in mobile devices remains more of a marketing gimmick than technological advancement and will likely remain so over the next couple years.

By Howard Wei

Research Assistant, M2M & Embedded Technology