To get an idea of how small the electronic elements on the Apple A12 Bionic chip are in the heart of the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR, you really look hard on a human hair.
It's obviously thin. But it's still thick enough that you could fit about 10,000 A12 electronic components across its width. This miniaturization is a "big breakthrough," said Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller on Wednesday, saying the A12 was the industry's first chip to be built with a 7-nanometer manufacturing process.
One nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and as Apple switched from the 10nm process of the A11 chip to the 7nm region of the A12, the company was able to bring the number of circuit elements called transistors to the same area. In the case of the A12, that's 6.9 billion transistors.
You do not necessarily have to understand the nuances of transistor sizes or how small a nanometer really is. The end result is that the iPhone XS and XS Max will run 50 percent faster than the 2017 iPhone X while the artificial intelligence software works 8 times faster. And most importantly, your battery does not go dead.
The A12 "is so ahead of the industry that it can still compete with the best Android smartphones in two years and is massively more powerful than lower-priced cell phones," said Stratchery analyst Ben Thompson.
The race for 7-nanometer chips
Apple sees the 7nm process and related features as a big advantage.
"The A12 Bionic is the industry's first 7nm chip, which is a big breakthrough," said Schiller at the iPhone XS launch event. "This A12 Bionic is without question the smartest and most powerful chip in a smartphone."
But Apple won the 7nm horse race with a nose.
Huawei, which recently acquired Apple to achieve second place in smartphone shipments for top-ranked Samsung, will ship its Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro phones in October, a couple of weeks after Apple's iPhone XS and XS Max arrive , The Mate models use Huawei's Kirin 980 processor, also with a 7nm process.
Qualcomm, which supplies processors for many high-end Android phones, today uses the 10-nm processes of the chip foundries. The next generation model, probably called the Snapdragon 855, is built with 7nm manufacturing. Almost sees Apple, which is currently in a legal dispute with Qualcomm and the mobile chip giant noses.
Such bragging is common in tech circles, but here is a subtext.
"Apple wants to make it clear they can access the latest process early on," said Kevin Krewell, an analyst at Tirias Research. The years of transition to 7nm manufacturing has been difficult, but Apple has the money and clout to get a lot of the first chips out of the fabs.
Although Apple designs its own chips, it relies on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. (TSMC) to build it now. Qualcomm's next-generation Snapdragon prototype chips are also being built by TSMC, but it's Apple's handsets that are shipping millions this month.
The true benefit of the 7nm process is that Apple can do anything without leveling the battery. "The lower power can extend battery life or allow Apple to increase performance 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 at a dead end for more than a decade, as the previously steady progress at increasingly faster processor clock rates splashed. This forces chip makers to find other ways to make chips better because the same software no longer automatically runs faster with each new chip generation.
Special circuits were a primary coping mechanism. First came graphics processors or GPUs that accelerate not only gaming effects such as cloudy air and shiny chrome, but also physical calculations that make explosions look real. Apple's A11 chip had three GPU engines called Cores, but the A12 has four.
Recently, chip makers have begun to add chip technology to accelerate artificial intelligence tasks. AI, nowadays also referred to as machine learning and neural networks, can make devices understand voice commands, take better pictures, and recognize unhealthy heartbeat patterns. The A12's built-in AI circuitry can perform 5 trillion operations per second, an eight-fold increase over the A11, Schiller said.
Control of the entire device
Apple is in a strong position compared to some phone rivals because it not only controls the processor but also the operating system and other software such as voice recognition and photo apps. The company can ensure that all parts of the system work well together.
Google has added its own separate AI chip, theOne reason: controlling the AI system gave Google flexibility for all the software that needed it, engineers said at the recent hot-chip conference.
But Apple's AI brains are built right on its A12 chip. The so-called intelligent computer is "able to analyze the data of the neural network and spontaneously find out whether it runs on the CPU, the GPU or the neural engine," said Schiller.
Analysts agree that AI is an important new foundation for computing. It will "touch every bit of modern software," said Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin in a research note on Thursday. And Apple is a leader in AI in mobile devices.
"Apple comes dangerously close to making a lot of science fiction a reality," Bajarin said, "and the effort they make with machine learning is central."
Apple: Look, what's up with the tech giant.
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