Apple’s mailing of invitations to media for Sept. 12 and the number “5″ shadowed under the number “12″ pretty much confirm that on Thursday morning we’ll see the sixth generation of the iPhone, referred to by some as iPhone 5, which some people, with little else to do, have been waiting for since early 2011. Traditionally, meaning for all two years we’ve been doing this, we have offered our own best guess on what the Next iPhone will be like.
We’re drawing heavily and unashamedly on a recent, and typically insightful, technical analysis by Brian Klug and Anand Lal Shimpi, two of the brains behind the hardware blog, AnandTech.com. They looked at: the historical pattern of actual technical decisions by Apple about the iPhone since its launch in 2007; an array of rumours; and their own assessment of technical feasibility of various features.
The historical trends show Apple is riding the 18-24 month cycle typical of silicon advances, and keying design changes to this cycle. About every two years, one or more key iPhone elements are changing: the overall appearance, processor architecture, graphics, cellular communications and the like. Based on those trends, iPhone 4S, the current model, is due for changes in several areas.
Exterior and screen
The two authors are giving great weight to a number of purported iPhone 5 casing and components that have emerged over the past few months, especially those posted in July by the Japanese electronics repair site, iLab Factory. The iLab photos show what at first appears to be a longer version of the iPhone 4S.
AnandTech notes several significant differences, though none are as dramatic as the fanciful imaginative Photoshop renderings so beloved by the iOSphere. The changes noted by AnandTech:
+ the all-metal back, with apparently narrow black glass windows at top and bottom for wireless signals;
+ the longer body, to accommodate a taller (4 inches diagonal), but not wider screen, with 640 x 1136 resolution;
+ the apparent switch to a “more chromed” side metal band compared to the current brushed metal band, possibly with a beveled edge;
+ noticeably thinner body, compared to iPhone 4S presumably due to Apple’s first use of what’s called “in-cell” display technology, which essentially merges some layers in the LCD display (Most of the rumour focus on this has been on the fact that this lets Apple create a thinner phone; but it should also lead to some enhancements in image quality.);
+ relocating the 3.5mm headphone jack to the bottom of the phone, and introducing a much smaller 9-pin dock connector.
For a year at least, much of the rumouring about the iPhone 5 CPU has been over whether Apple would use a quad-core processor. AnandTech has consistently argued, based on past history, that Apple will more likely focus on introducing a smaller version of the existing, Apple-designed (and Samsung-manufactured) A5 chip, currently based on the dual-core ARM A9 architecture.
The current chip uses a 45-nanometer process. But AnandTech noted that Apple introduced a 32-nanometer chip on the latest generation Apple TV and in the iPad 2 models offered for sale after the introduction of the newest iPad. “In the case of the iPad 2,4, we saw a huge increase in battery life as a result of the move to 32nm,” according to AnandTech. “Some of the gains in battery life in the iPhone are likely to be offset by higher CPU/GPU clocks, but this is still the most likely approach for Apple this generation.”
The A5X chip in the newest iPad is a 45-nanometer device with four PowerVR SGX543 cores for graphics processing, and a corresponding 4 x 32-bit memory interface, the authors note. That was needed to handle the new iPad’s “Retina Display” but it’s overkill for the 18% jump in pixels for a 4in iPhone display. AnandTech expects that something like a “20% increase in GPU clock speed, and faster DRAM would be enough to maintain current levels of performance” for the new iPhone.
AnandTech expects Apple to support LTE and, for China, the TC-SCDMA cellular standard.
Apple will likely rely on Qualcomm’s second generation Gobi modems and transceivers, now commercially available. This product line has a higher degree of integration, eliminating the need for an extra chip, and draws less power. AnandTech thinks Apple will use Qualcomm’s MDM9x15 platform, which supports a wide range of LTE and advanced 3G standards, and frequencies. As a part of Qualcomm’s MSM8960 system on a chip product, the 9×15 has delivered “great battery life [due to a shift to 28-nanometer process] and LTE performance,” according to AnandTech.
No to NFC
The authors repeat their previously reported conclusion that the short-range wireless technology called near field communications (NFC) is an unlikely feature on iPhone 5.
“Given the primarily metal backside of the new iPhone, it’s highly unlikely that NFC is in the cards for this generation,” they say. “In fact, given the very little space at top and bottom dedicated to those glass RF windows, you can almost entirely rule it out.”
There are two reasons: if the rumours are right about the new metal body, that creates a huge obstacle to a reliable radiating NFC antenna; and the antenna itself in most current implementations consists of a lot of wires wrapped around something big, like a battery. Trying to jam the antenna into one of the top or bottom rear glass windows is problematic, because it makes trying to align the phone with NFC payment tokens, reader tags and the like a “much more confusing task, and that doesn’t seem like the Apple-like level of polish everyone is waiting for to drive NFC adoption,” Anandtech concludes.
The next major advance in Wi-Fi will be 802.11ac, which promises a huge jump in data rate and throughput. But that won’t be ready in certified products until early 2013 and probably not optimised for smartphones until still later in 2013.
But based on Apple’s Wi-Fi history for iPhone, and the ambitious plans by iPhone Wi-Fi supplier Broadcom, Apple might introduce support for the 5-GHz band in iPhone 5 (currently, all iPhones support Wi-Fi only on the 2.4-GHz band). The new band would let iPhones use a much less crowded frequency, and have a broader choice of channels for high quality connections.
Maintaining if not improving battery performance in smartphones requires a complex set of tradeoffs. A drop in battery performance would be a serious blow to iPhone 5. AnandTech notes that Motorola last year led the way to using a new, higher voltage chemistry, moving batteries up from 3.7 to 3.8 volts. Nokia and Samsung have followed suit.
“Thus it seems highly likely that Apple will also move to this chemistry given maturity and the tangible benefits it provides to [longer] battery lifetime,” according to AnandTech.
Given the inclusion of the number “5″ on the media invitations, it now seems certain that the next iPhone will carry the name “iPhone 5.” That raises again what names mean to Apple, a question that sparked spirited debate when the expected “iPad 3″ was released as simply “iPad” earlier this year.
One person that’s given serious thought to what’s in Apple’s names is Horace Dediu, founder of Asymco.com, which analyzes technology markets, especially mobile.
In a recent blogpost, Dediu notes that “every hardware product that Apple has released has had a brand and a sub-brand. Macs for example use the Mac brand and a sub-brand…,” with the sub-brands distinguishing specific functions or niches: Mac Pro, Mac Mini, and so on.
By contrast, both iPhone and iPad used what Dediu calls generational naming conventions.”
“This implies no sub-branding, as the iPhone and iPad are the only identifiers of brand and hence the only meaning being imparted to the buyer. You either get an iPhone or an old iPhone.”
In keeping with a lot of rumours about a smaller iPad, dubbed “iPad mini,” Dediu concedes that Apple may be planning to sub-brand the iPad.
But apparently not the iPhone. “The launch announcement seems to clearly point to “5 being the name of the new iPhone,” he says. “The brand remains iPhone and there will be no sub-branding.”
“There will be no ‘special’ iPhone for different (e.g. low-end) markets. There will be no different form factor to accommodate different use cases. There will be no new jobs to be done for the iPhone. What a bummer.”
But Dediu notes that Apple is at the same time creating new service brands for the iOS platform.
“There’s Siri, (as yet unnamed) Maps, GameCenter and PassBook,” he says. “These are not Apps. These are services designed to be unique to iOS, perhaps even unique to the iPhone. The difference with the iPhone brand may not be that it spans a multitude of sub-brands in hardware but that it covers a multitude of new service brands. As brands imply meaning, the iPhone brand may imply that it’s a platform in and of itself.”