Apple sure seems to be in a spending mood these days. The company spent as much as $100 to 200 million to buy Siri, a virtual assistant applications developer. Now the New York Times confirms that it bought Intrinsity, a processor chipset maker based in Austin, TX, for an estimated $121 million. (These are bargains, considering the $278 million it previously plunked down for another chip maker, PA Semi.)
The news started coming out after some trade pubs noticed that various Intrinsity staffers’ LinkedIn pages started showing Apple as the employer. And now a NYT article confirms the acquisition. Intrinsity is believed to be responsible — along with Samsung — for the A4 processor that’s inside the iPad. (This is what has many pundits thinking the tablet’s processor is actually the Hummingbird chip the two companies were jointly working on).
Though far from a “must-have” gadget in the eyes of many tech fanatics, the Apple tablet managed to garner big sales, with as many as 1 million+ devices sold thus far. Part of that success is credited to the device’s fast 1GHz speed and battery life, estimated at up to 10 hours. And those features have everything to do with the chipset inside.
Some could take this as an indication that Apple will bring the A4 to the next iPhone as well. And if that’s true, then could it be that the smartphone war has moved on from platform debates, touchscreen technology, UIs and app selection, to its next major battleground: speed and battery life?
The NYT didn’t exactly address that. What it did say struck me as weird though, particularly the following passage:
The speed of mobile device chips are typically measured in megahertz, and one of the more popular chips on the market usually runs at about 650 megahertz. Intrinsity’s engineers found a way to crank that speed up to 1000 megahertz…
By acquiring Intrinsity, Apple would be able to keep that 350 megahertz edge to itself.
Do you spot what’s missing? It’s 10 little letters, namely Snapdragon.
It’s a little weird that the A8 ARM Cortex processor developed by Qualcomm wasn’t even included. But the article does mention the company itself, whose 1GHz Snapdragon chips are often integrated in Android and Windows Mobile phones, as well as other makers like Nvidia (Tegra 2) and Marvell (Armada 618). They’re all spending a ton of money to develop their own ARM processors.
I’m no chipset expert, but I do know there’s more to a device’s speed than how fast the processor clocks, including memory and other aspects. But Anandtech is, and he did a comparison a few weeks ago pitting the iPad, the iPhone 3GS and the Nexus One for browser load times.
The Nexus One, with Snapdragon processor, beat the iPhone 3GS in all of Anandtech's tests. And the iPad, with A4 chip, topped both in every instance but one (when the N1 loaded CNN's mobile site 0.4 seconds faster than the iPad). These tests should be taken with a grain of salt, since there are variables (like the tablet’s bigger battery, for one) that don’t exactly make this an even fight. And even if the A4 chip could maintain that speed and power management in a smaller form factor, there’s no confirmation that Apple will even put it in the new iPhone.
Still, the possibility is intriguing, and not just because it’s self-serving — as an iPhone user, I have to admit I would love this — but because of its potential impact on the industry as a whole.
Apple didn’t lead the way in processing power, as Snapdragon has been on the scene for a while now (meanwhile, the current 3GS handset has been plodding along with 600MHz). If both make major waves in the smartphone scene, could it accelerate the rush toward faster, more energy-efficient chips across the board?
I contend that competition is good, and if this sets off an all-out speed war, users of all platforms might feasibly benefit from it.
Given that most of the major smartphone brands already deliver touchscreens, contacts/calendar management, built-in and third-party apps, full HTML web browsers — and soon, multitasking — faster chips and longer life could wind up being the biggest differentiators to the masses.
No matter what the handset, waiting for a webpage to crunch through loading is never fun. And there’s hardly anyone who doesn’t have a story about how the device conked out at an inconvenient time. (Kind of reminds me of those horror movie plot devices.)
So if faster processing without the power drain becomes the standard and not the exception industrywide, those scenarios could become a thing of the past.
Tell us what you think. Are you happy with your smartphone’s speed and battery life? Or could those two factors sway you from one handset to another? (Or even one OS to another?) Share your thoughts below.