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Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

iPhone XS' industry-first A12 chip gives Apple big advantage over rivals

New processing, graphics and AI power will let today's iPhone keep pace with Android phones of 2020.

To get an idea of how small the electronic elements are on the Apple A12 Bionic chip at the heart of the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR, first squint really hard at a human hair.

It's thin, obviously. But it's still thick enough that you could fit about 10,000 of an A12's electronic components across its width. That miniaturization is a "huge breakthrough," Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller boasted on Wednesday, saying the A12 is the industry's first chip to be built using a 7-nanometer manufacturing process.

A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, so when Apple moved from the A11 chip's 10nm process to the A12's 7nm, it meant the company could stuff twice the number of circuit elements called transistors into the same surface area. In the case of the A12, that's 6.9 billion transistors.

You don't necessarily need to understand the nuances of transistor sizes or just how small a nanometer really is. The bottom line is that the advancement will let the iPhone XS and XS Max run graphics 50 percent faster than 2017's iPhone X, while artificial intelligence software will work 8 times faster. And perhaps most important, your battery won't get drained.

The A12 "is so far ahead of the industry that it will still be competitive with the best Android smartphones in two years, and massively more powerful than lower-end phones," said Stratechery analyst Ben Thompson.

The race to 7-nanometer chips

Apple sees the 7nm process and the features it permits as a major advantage.

"The A12 Bionic is the industry's first 7nm chip. That's a huge breakthrough," Schiller said at the iPhone XS launch event. "This A12 Bionic is without question the smartest and most powerful chip ever in a smartphone."

In this photo composite, Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller touts some of the features in the A12 Bionic processor that powers the iPhone XS, XS Max and XR smartphones.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

But Apple won the 7nm horse race by a nose.

Huawei, which recently overtook Apple to claim the second-place spot in smartphone shipments after top-ranked Samsung, will ship its Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro phones in October, a few weeks after Apple's iPhone XS and XS Max start arriving. The Mate models use Huawei's Kirin 980 processor, also built with a 7nm process.

Qualcomm, which supplies processors to many high-end Android phones, uses chip foundries' 10nm processes today. Its next-generation model, likely called the Snapdragon 855, will be built with 7nm manufacturing. You can almost see Apple, which is in the middle of a legal dispute with Qualcomm, thumbing its nose at the mobile chip giant.

Such bragging is ordinary in tech circles, but there's a subtext here.

"Apple wants it clear that they have early access to the latest process," said Tirias Research analyst Kevin Krewell. The years-long shift to 7nm manufacturing has been difficult, but Apple has the money and clout to claim a lot of the first chips rolling out of the fabs.

The iPhone XS and XS Max models ship in September, leading Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller to boast Apple will be first to use the next-generation 7-nanometer manufacturing process, but 7nm chip-based models from rivals like Huawei will arrive soon after.

The iPhone XS and XS Max models ship in September, leading Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller to boast Apple will be first to use the next-generation 7-nanometer manufacturing process. But 7nm chip-based models from rivals like Huawei will arrive soon after.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Though Apple designs its own chips, it relies on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. (TSMC) to build them right now. Qualcomm's next-gen Snapdragon prototype chips are built by TSMC, too, but it's Apple's phones that'll be shipping by the millions this month.

The real advantage of the 7nm process is that Apple can do it all without flattening your battery. "The lower power can extend battery life or allow Apple to push the performance up by 20 percent when the user needs the extra boost," said Linley Group analyst Linley Gwennap.

New AI brains in Apple's A12 chip

The chip industry has been in a pickle for more than a decade as the previously steady progress in ever-faster processor clock speeds sputtered. That's forced chipmakers to figure out other ways to try to make chips better, because no longer does the same software automatically run faster with each new chip generation.

Special-purpose circuitry has been one primary coping mechanism. First came graphics processing units, or GPUs, which accelerate not just gaming effects like hazy air and gleaming chrome, but also physics calculations that make explosions look real. Apple's A11 chip had three GPU engines called cores, but the A12 has four.

More recently, chipmakers have begun adding chip technology to accelerate artificial intelligence chores. AI -- also called machine learning and neural networks these days -- can let devices understand speech commands, take better photos and recognize unhealthy heartbeat patterns. The A12's built-in AI circuitry can perform 5 trillion operations per second, an eightfold increase over the A11, Schiller said.

Controlling the whole device

Apple is in a strong position compared to some phone rivals because it controls not only the processor but the operating system and other software like speech recognition and photo apps. The company can ensure all the parts of the system work well together.

Google Pixel Visual Engine

Google's Pixel Visual Engine processor, which ships in its Pixel 2 phone models, is a separate chip that accelerates some AI chores. Google detailed it at the Hot Chips conference.

Hot Chips/Google

Google added its own separate AI chip, the Pixel Visual Core, to its Pixel 2 phones in 2017. One reason: Controlling the AI system gave Google flexibility for all the software that relies on it, its engineers said at the recent Hot Chips conference.

But Apple's AI brains are built straight onto its A12 chip. Technology called the smart compute system is "able to analyze the neural network data and figure out on the fly whether to run it on the CPU, the GPU or the neural engine," Schiller said.

Analysts agree that AI is a key new foundation for computing. It will "touch every bit of modern-day software," Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin said in a research note Thursday. And Apple has the lead when it comes to AI in mobile devices.

"Apple is getting dangerously close to bringing a great deal of science fiction into reality," Bajarin said, "and the efforts they are doing with machine learning is at the center."

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