M7 Motion Coprocessor

In addition to the A7 SoC, the iPhone 5s ships with a discrete “motion coprocessor” called the M7. The M7 acts as a sensor hub, accepting inputs from the accelerometer, gyroscope and compass. The M7 also continuously monitors motion data and can interface with iOS 7’s CoreMotion API. The combination of those two things is designed to enable a completely new class of health and fitness applications.

Fundamentally the role of the M7 was previously serviced by the A6 SoC. Apple broke out its functionality into a separate chip, allegedly to reduce power consumption. With the M7 servicing motion and sensor requests, the A7 SoC can presumably remain asleep for longer. Any application level interaction will obviously require that the A7 wake up, but the M7 is supposed to enable a lot of background monitoring of sensor and motion data at very low power levels.

In the earliest implementation of CoreMotion and the M7, the iPhone 5s in combination with iOS maps will automatically switch between driving and walking directions when it detects that you’ve transitioned from automobile to pedestrian travel. The M7 can also signal iOS that you’re driving, and prevent the OS from popping up requests to join WiFi networks it finds along the way. Hardware enabled situational awareness is a big step for modern smartphones, and the combination of hardware (M7) and software (CoreMotion API) both make a lot of sense. I’ve seen demos in the past of companies looking to parse sensor data (along with other contextual data from your device) to determine when you’re at work, or the gym or when you’re otherwise occupied and can’t immediately respond to a message. Your phone understanding your current state in addition to your location is an extremely important step towards making smartphones even more personal.

The role of the M7 makes a lot of sense - its location physically outside of the A7 SoC is what’s unusual. Apple could’ve just as easily integrated its functionality on die and just power gated the rest of the SoC when idle. The M7’s existence outside of the main A7 die can imply a number of things.

The best theory I have is that we’ll see some deployments of A7 without the associated M7 part. Along those lines, a very smart man theorized that perhaps M7 is built on a different manufacturing process than A7. We’ll have to wait for someone to delayer the M7 to truly find out, but that will tell us a lot about Apple’s motivations here.

Touch ID

I’ve somehow managed to escape most fingerprint sensors on computing devices. I owned a couple of laptops that had the old optical style sensors, but it was always quicker for me to type in a password than it was for me to deal with the sensor. I also wrote a piece on Motorola’s Atrix a few years back, which had a fingerprint sensor built into the power/clock button. The experience back then wasn’t all that great either. If I got into a groove I’d be able to unlock the Atrix by sliding my finger over the sensor every time, but I’d run into problems more often than not. The unpredictable nature of the Atrix’s sensor is what ultimately made it more frustrating than useful. The concept, however, was sound.

No one likes typing in a passcode. Four digit ones aren’t really all that secure unless you have some sort of phone wipe on x-number-of-retries setting. Longer passcodes are more secure but also a pain to type in regularly.

Security is obviously extremely important on modern day smartphones. Personal messages, emails, access to all of your social networking, banking, airline reservations, everything is accessible once you get past that initial passcode on a phone. We also check our devices frequently enough that you want some sort of grace period between requiring another passcode. It’s bad practice, but it’s a great example of convenience trumping security.

When I first heard the rumors of Apple integrating a fingerprint scanner into the iPhone 5s’ home button I was beyond skeptical. I for sure thought that Apple had run out of ideas. Even listening to the feature introduced live, I couldn’t bring myself to care. Having lived with the iPhone 5s for the past week however, I can say that Touch ID is not only extremely well executed, but a feature I miss when I’m not using the 5s.

The hardware is pretty simple to understand. Touch ID is a capacitive fingerprint sensor embedded behind a sapphire crystal cover. The sensor works by forming a capacitor with your finger/thumb. The sensor applies a voltage to one plate of a capacitor, using your finger as the other plate. The resulting electric field between your dermis (layer right below your outward facing skin) and the Touch ID sensor maps out the ridges and valleys of your fingerprint. Because the data that’s being stored is somewhat sub-epidermal, dirt and superficial damage to your finger shouldn’t render Touch ID inoperable (although admittedly I didn’t try cutting any of my fingers to test this theory). The map is recorded (and not an image of your finger) and stored in some secure memory on the A7 SoC itself. The data is stored in an encrypted form and is never uploaded to iCloud or stored anywhere other than on your A7 SoC.

Behind the Touch ID sensor is a similar feeling mechanical switch to what you’d find on the iPhone 5 or 5c. You still get the same click and same resistance. The only physical differences are a lack of the home square printed on the button, and the presence of a steel ring around the button. The steel ring acts as a conductive sensor for your finger. Make contact with the steel ring and Touch ID wakes up (presumably when your phone is in a state where Touch ID interactions are expected). Without making contact with the ring, Touch ID won’t work (I confirmed this by trying to unlock the 5s with my pinky and never touching the ring).

Having a passcode is a mandatory Touch ID requirement. You can’t choose to only use Touch ID to unlock your device. In the event that your fingerprint isn’t recognized, you can always manually type in your passcode.

Your fingerprint data isn’t accessible by third party apps at this point, and even has limited exposure under iOS 7. At present, you can only use Touch ID to unlock your phone or to authorize an iTunes purchase. If you’ve restarted your phone, you need to manually type in your passcode once before you can use Touch ID. If you haven’t unlocked your phone in 48 hours, you’ll need to supply your passcode before Touch ID is an option. Repeated failed attempts (5) to access your 5s via Touch ID will force you to enter a passcode as well.

Other first party services like Game Center logins are also not Touch ID enabled. Even using Touch ID for iTunes purchases requires an opt in step in the Settings menu, it’s not on by default.

Apple has done its best to make the Touch ID configuration and subsequent recognition process as seamless as possible. There’s an initial training period for any finger you want stored by the device. At present you can store up to five unique fingers. At first that sounded like a lot, but I ended up using four of those slots right away. The idea is to store any finger you’d possibly want to use to unlock the device, to avoid Touch ID becoming a limit on how you hold your phone. For me that amounted to both thumbs and both index fingers. The thumbs were an obvious choice since I don’t always hold my phone in the same hand. I added my index fingers for the phone-on-table use case. That left me with a fifth slot that I could use for myself or anyone else I wanted to give access to my phone.

The training process is pretty simple. Just pick up and place your finger on the Touch ID sensor a few times while it maps out your fingerprint. After you complete that step, do it again but focus on the edges of your finger instead. The surface area of the Touch ID sensor is pretty small by comparison to most fingers, so the more data you can give the sensor the better. Don’t worry about giving Touch ID a perfect map of your fingers on the first try. Touch ID is designed to adapt over time. Whenever an unlock attempt fails and is followed by a successful attempt, the 5s will compare the print map from the failed attempt and if it determines that both attempts were made with the same finger it will expand the match database for that finger. Indeed I tested and verified this was working. I deliberately picked a weird angle and part of my thumb to unlock the 5s, which was immediately rejected. I then followed it up with a known good placement and was successful. I then repeated the weird attempt from before and had it immediately succeed. That could’ve been dumb luck or the system working as intended. There’s no end user exposure to what’s going on inside.

With fingers added to Touch ID, everything else works quite smoothly. The easiest way to unlock the iPhone 5s with Touch ID enabled is to press and release the home button and just leave your finger/thumb there. The button press wakes the device, and leaving your digit there after the fact gives the Touch ID sensor time to read your print and unlock the device. In practice, I found it quicker than manually typing in a four digit passcode. Although the process is faster than typing in a passcode, I feel like it could go even quicker. I’m sure Apple is erring on the side of accuracy rather than speed, but I do feel like there’s some room for improvement still.

Touch ID accuracy didn’t seem impacted by oily skin but it quickly turns non-functional if you’ve got a wet finger. The same goes for extremely dirty fingers.

Touch ID ended up being much better than I thought it would be, and it’s honestly the first fingerprint scanner system that I would use on a regular basis. It’s a much better way of unlocking your phone. I’ve been transitioning between the 5s the 5c and the iPhone 5 for the past week, and whenever I’d go to the latter two I’d immediately miss the Touch ID sensor. The feature alone isn’t enough to sell me on the 5s, but it’s definitely a nice addition. My only real wish is that Touch ID would be acceptable as an authentication method in more places, although I understand the hesitation Apple must have in opening the floodgates.

 

GPU Architecture & Performance Battery Life
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  • Wilco1 - Thursday, September 19, 2013 - link

    The Geekbench results are indeed skewed by AES encryption. The author claimed AES was the only benchmark where they use hardware acceleration when available. There has been a debate on fixing the weighting or to place hardware accelerated benchmarks in a separate category to avoid skewing the results. So I'm hoping a future version will fix this.

    As for cross-platform benchmarking, Geekbench currently uses the default platform compiler (LLVM on iOS, GCC on Android, VC++ on Windows). So there will be compiler differences that skew results slightly. However this is also what you'd get if you built the same application for iOS and Android.
    Reply
  • smartypnt4 - Thursday, September 19, 2013 - link

    A lot of the other stuff in Geekbench seems to be fairly representative, though. Except a few of the FP ones like the blur and sharpen tests...

    It surely can't be hard to have Geekbench omit those results. I think if they did that, you'd see that the A7 is roughly 50-60% faster than the A6 instead of 100% faster, but I'm not sure there. I'd have to go and do work to figure that out. Which is annoying :-)
    Reply
  • name99 - Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - link

    I'd agree with the tweaks you suggest: (improved memory controller and prefetcher, doubling of L2, larger branch predictor tables).

    There is also scope for a wider CPU. Obviously the most simple-minded widening of a CPU substantially increases power, but there are ways to limit the extra power without compromising performance too much, if you are willing to spend the transistors. I think Apple is not just willing to spend the transistors, but will have them available to spend once they ditch 32-bit compatibility. At that point they can add a fourth decoder, use POWER style blocking of instructions to reduce retirement costs, and add whatever extra pipes make sense.
    The most useful improvement (in my experience) would be to up the L1 from being able to handle one load+store cycle to two loads+ one store per cycle, but I don't know what the power cost of that is --- may be too high.

    On the topic of minor tweaks, do we know what the page size used by iOS is? If they go from 4K to 16K and/or add support for large pages, they could get a 10% of so speed boost just from better TLB coverage.
    (And what's Android's story on this front? Do they stick with standard 4K pages, or do they utilize 16 or 64K pages and/or large pages?)
    Reply
  • extide - Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - link

    Those are some pretty generous numbers you pulled out of your hat there. It's not as easy as just do this and that and bam, you have something to compete with Intel Core series stuff. No. I mean yeah, Apple has done a great job here and I wish someone else was making CPU's like this for the Android phones but oh well. Reply
  • name99 - Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - link

    "Now, I will agree that this does prove that if Apple really wanted to, they could build something to compete with Haswell in terms of raw throughput."

    I agree with your point, but I think we should consider what an astonishing statement this is.
    Two years ago Apple wasn't selling it's own CPU. They burst onto the scene and with their SECOND device they're at an IPC and a performance/watt that equals Intel! Equals THE competitor in this space, the guys who are using the best process on earth.

    If you don't consider that astonishing, you don't understand what has happened here.

    (And once again I'd make my pitch that THIS shows what Intel's fatal flaw is. The problem with x86 is not that it adds area to a design, or that it slows it down --- though it does both. The problem is that it makes design so damn complex that you're constantly lagging; and you're terrified of making large changes because you might screw up.
    Apple, saddled with only the much smaller ARM overhead, has been vastly more nimble than Intel.
    And it's only going to get worse if, as I expect, Apple ditches 32-bit ARM as soon as they can, in two years or so, giving them an even easier design target...)

    What's next for Apple?
    At the circuit level, I expect them to work hard to make their CPU as good at turboing as Intel. (Anand talked about this.)
    At the ISA level, I expect their next major target to be some form of hardware transactional memory --- it just makes life so much easier, and, even though they're at two cores today, they know as well as anyone that the future is more cores. You don't have to do TM the way Intel has done it; the solution IBM used for POWER8 is probably a better fit for ARM. And of course if Apple do this (using their own extensions, because as far as I know ARM doesn't yet even have a TM spec) it's just one more way in which they differentiate their world from the commodity ARM world.
    Reply
  • smartypnt4 - Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - link

    @extide: agreed.

    @name99: It is very astonishing indeed. Then again, a high profile company like Apple has no problem attracting some of the best talent via compensation and prestige.

    They've still got quite a long way to match Haswell, in any case. But the throughput is technically there to rival Intel if they wanted to. I would hope that Haswell contains a much more advanced branch predictor and prefetcher than what Apple has, but you never know. My computer architecture professor always said that everything in computer architecture has already been discovered. The question now is when will it be advantageous to spend the transistors to implement the most complicated designs.

    The next year is going to be very interesting, indeed.
    Reply
  • Bob Todd - Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - link

    How many crows did you stuff down after claiming BT would be slower than A15 and even A12? Remember posting this about integer performance?

    "Silverthorne < A7 < A9 < A9R4 < Silvermont < A12 < Bobcat < A15 < Jaguar"

    Apple's A7 looks great, but you've made so many utterly ridiculous Intel performance bashing posts that it's pretty much impossible to take anything you say seriously.
    Reply
  • Wilco1 - Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - link

    BT has indeed far lower IPC than A15 just like I posted - pretty much all benchmark results confirm that. On Geekbench 3 A15 is 23-25% faster clock for clock on integer and FP.

    The jury is still out on A12 vs BT as we've seen no performance results for A12 so far. So claiming I was wrong is not only premature but also incorrect as the fact is that Bay Trail is slower.
    Reply
  • Wilco1 - Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - link

    Also new version with A7 and A57 now looks like this:

    Silverthorne < A7 < A9 < A9R4 < Silvermont < A12 < Bobcat < A15 < Jaguar < A57 < Apple A7
    Reply
  • Bob Todd - Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - link

    Cherry picking a single benchmark which is notoriously inaccurate at comparisons across platforms/architectures doesn't make you "right", it just makes you look like more of a troll. Bay Trail has better integer performance than Jaguar (at near identical base clocks), so by your own ranking above it *has* to be faster than A12 and A15.

    You show up in every ARM article spouting the same drivel over and over again, yet you were mysteriously absent in the Bay Trail performance preview. Here's the link if you want to try to find a way to spin more FUD.

    http://anandtech.com/show/7314/intel-baytrail-prev...

    Apple's A7 looks great, and IT is still the powerhouse of mobile graphics. The A7 version in the iPad should be a beast. None of that makes most of your comments any less loony.
    Reply

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