Samsung backs Apple's 64-bit chip smartphone chip switch

Samsung has confirmed its next high-end smartphones will feature 64-bit processors. The announcement follows the launch of the iPhone 5S, the first handset to include the technology. Apple boasted its A7 chip offered "desktop-class architecture".

However, experts say most apps are unlikely to see much immediate benefit from the shift from 32-bit tech and that it could introduce compatibility problems in the future.

The number of bits in relation to a microprocessor affects the size of numbers with which it can deal.

For example, the amount of memory that can be directly accessed without data having to be swapped back and forth.

In the case of 32-bit architecture, the amount of memory than can be addressed is two to the power of 32, in other words 4.3 billion values or four gigabytes of memory.

In the case of 64-bit architecture the processor can theoretically address 18,400,000 trillion values.

If a program has been written to take advantage of a 64-bit operating system, it should mean the processor can access data that is in this larger memory rather than retrieving it from, for example, the hard disk. This speeds up the whole processing chain.

As a result the processor can take advantage of machines with more physical memory.

Operating systems written for 32-bit chips can only access up to 4GB of RAM, but those written for 64-bit processors can, in theory, support up to 16 billion gigabytes of RAM.

Boosting the amount of RAM allows software to become more complex and the computer to run more programs simultaneously without having to swap as much data to other types of slower memory.

However, it also makes the equipment more expensive and power-hungry.

For that reason, smart-device makers have tended to shy away from taking advantage of 32-bit chips' upper RAM limit.

Samsung's forthcoming Galaxy Note 3 handset goes the furthest, with 3GB of RAM. The device also features a bigger-than-normal 3,200 mAh battery.


Incompatible apps

Samsung Electronic's co-chief executive announced its plan to use 64-bit chips, in an interview with the Korea Times newspaper.

"Not in the shortest time," said Shin Jong-kyun. "But yes, our next smartphones will have 64-bit processing functionality."

However, bearing in mind there will remain many iOS and Android handsets on the market that still rely on 32-bit chips, this may deter developers from taking advantage of the switch in the short-term.

"People who have the old 32-bit processors will not be able to run software that is built specifically for the 64-bit processors because the latter uses a different instruction set," explained Prof Alan Woodward, from the University of Surrey's computing department.

"However, if people write in 32-bit, it will run on many of the 64-bit processors because they still support the old instruction set.

"So, you can get the whole market by writing the app in 32-bits, but you can only get a very small part of the market if you write specifically for 64-bits."

Once sales of the new devices do grow, makers of video games and software to create 3D-animations might be among the first to make the switch since their programs are among the most processor-intensive and thus most likely to see the biggest benefit.

But one industry watcher warned that this might create compatibility problems unless app stores continued to offer two different versions of the same program to accommodate both types of chip.

"When app makers do decide to transition to fully 64-bit, it will create a divide in the market," said Chris Green, from the Davies Murphy Group consultancy.

"We saw exactly the same thing happen in the Windows world when software makers moved from 32-bit to purely 64-bit."


Rise of ARM

For now British chip designer ARM may prove the biggest beneficiary.

Smart-device makers are able to offer 64-bit tech because they have licensed the firm's ARMv8 architecture, which it first announced in 2011.

The news means the company will enjoy bigger fees. ARM's share price has risen about 10% since the start of the week.

Some have speculated that Apple's announcement might foreshadow the US firm ditching Intel chips in its laptops and desktop computers and moving to its own processors.

"Apple's new A7 chip is not powerful enough to be a PC chip, but the architecture is going that way," said Prof Woodward.

"They might be readying themselves. I think this is the beginning of a long road."

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