Last-Minute iPhone 5 Roundup: The Processor

The iPhone 5 launch on Wednesday is sure to be the most important event for tech investors this year. The Motley Fool will host a live chat where our top tech analysts will answer your questions and break down what the announcement means for Apple and investors everywhere. Swing by at 12:45 p.m. EDT today for all of your coverage ofApple's next big announcement.

We're now less than an hour away from Apple's (NAS: AAPL) big iPhone 5 event. Let's look at one under-the-hood spec that doesn't typically get much attention, but is very significant when it comes to the new device's performance: the processor.

Apple's chip strategy has been evolving of late, branching out its A-family of custom ARM Holdings-based (NAS: ARMH) processors into specialized uses. The third-generation iPad carries an A5X chip, which features two ARM Cortex A9 cores coupled with quad-core PowerVR graphics.

This chip is built on Samsung's 45-nanometer manufacturing process, which is relatively larger than ARM chips found in competing devices. For comparison, NVIDIA's (NAS: NVDA) quad-core Tegra 3 uses a 40-nanometer process, while Qualcomm's (NAS: QCOM) newest Snapdragon S4 chips have moved down to 28-nanometer.

Don't expect the A5X to be found in the iPhone 5. That chip's graphics capabilities are probably overkill for the iPhone 5, even with its taller screen. The third-generation iPad has 3.1 million pixels to drive its resolution of 2,048 x 1,536. The iPhone 5 is expected to have less than 730,000 pixels at a resolution of 1,136 x 640, or less than a quarter of the new iPad's.

For this reason, I expect Apple to focus more on the CPU side with the iPhone processor, because a smartphone simply doesn't need that much graphics horsepower compared to a tablet.

There's a good chance that the A6 -- or whatever it's called -- is built on Samsung's 32-nanometer process, moving down the scale in order to enjoy power efficiency gains and improved battery life. Apple did something clever behind the scenes earlier this year: It quietly moved down to 32-nanometer chips in products with lower unit volumes, presumably as a safer testing ground for the process.

The $399 iPad 2 that Apple released alongside the new iPad quietly made this change under the hood, and subsequently reaped a huge gain in battery life. Even though the iPad 2 was identical on the outside and the change was invisible to the user, its performance was actually improved. The current Apple TV also uses a single-core A5 built on 32-nanometer. Contrary to years of speculation, it doesn't appear that the iPhone maker is switching to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (NYS: TSM) any time soon.

My official guess is that Apple might move up to a quad-core CPU built on a 32-nanometer process, dub it the A6, and call it a day.

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Fool contributor Evan Niu owns shares of Qualcomm and Apple, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. Click here to see his holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Qualcomm and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of NVIDIA and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have also recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple and writing puts on NVIDIA. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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