Nivedit Majumdar Nivedit Majumdar

New technology in the iPhone 7 – Enhancing lifelogging

A couple of weeks back when the iPhone 7 was made official, it made quite a few headlines. The obvious variation over its predecessors was the removal of the headphone jack, along with the inclusion of beefier specifications, a dual-camera setup in the 7 Plus and a water resistant design to boot. Not bad for a flagship from Apple’s arsenal, we think.

But look beyond the mere specification overhaul, and you’ll see that the iPhone 7 variants pack quite a punch when it comes to the sensors within. We’re talking about the M10 motion coprocessors which go hand in hand with the A10 fusion chipset, promising performance and efficiency.

And at the end of the day, these significant changes matter the most when it comes to recording parameters through your cell phone, and ergo enabling lifelogging through mobile devices. In this article, I’ll be taking a look at all things new in Apple’s processing department, as well as drawing parallels with Google’s Pixel lineup.

 

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EASING INTO THE BASICS: A10 FUSION

When smartphones are manufactured, there’s usually one entity which governs all the processing activities. That entity – called the system on chip (SoC) – encompasses the CPU, GPU, image processors and other peripheral units. The SoC in the case of Android phones can be from external companies such as Qualcomm or Mediatek, but in the case of iPhones, it’s the A-series.

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The A10 Fusion SoC present on the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus has four cores in its CPU – double that of the previous iPhone 6S lineup. Much akin to the big.LITTLE technology employed by Qualcomm’s processors, two of the cores in the A10 are high performance based, capable of handling graphic intensive tasks. The other two handle regular menial tasks and consume one-fifth the power of their heftier counterparts. There’s a performance controller which dynamically decides how to distribute operations among the CPU cores.

Straightforward stuff, really. Now besides the CPU, there’s a hexa-core GPU in the mix. According to the estimates given out by Apple, the A10 Fusion has a 40% speed markup over its immediate predecessor, while the GPU consumes 66% of the power that its predecessor used.

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Long story short, the new chipsets in the iPhone 7 lineup are faster, more power efficient and more adept at handling tasks that any other iPhone till date.

THIS HAS EVERYTHING TO DO WITH LIFELOGGING

The A-Series chips also come in tow with a motion coprocessor unit – one which is responsible for some additional actions that might not require the complete CPU. Think of it as a Batman-Robin relationship. Batman might not always be available for fighting crime in all places, so while he’s off momentarily fighting a significant villain, Robin is looking out for crime on the streets.

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(Image Source: iFixit)

Bad analogies aside, the A10 Fusion chip comes with the M10 coprocessor on board. While there really hasn’t been any word as to what changes are offered by the M10 coprocessor, one can only speculate given the trends regarding the M-series lineup. The M8 added a barometer, and the M9 was capable of monitoring sensor based data and Siri based voice interactions, without interfering with the operations of the A9 chip.

WHAT CAN BE EXPECTED?

First off, there’s a whole lot of sensor potential that can be tapped into by the motion coprocessors. We’re talking about accessing data from the accelerometer – which can deliver some accurate statistics regarding steps taken. We’re also looking at the gyroscope and positional sensors, which would enable the iPhone 7 to become a decent enough sleep tracker.

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(Image Source: iFixit)

It’s also interesting to note that the motion coprocessors employ the usage of core motion principles that can detect what kind of motion the user is engaged in – be it walking, running, cycling or whether the user is in a car. A similar methodology has been used in the new Apple Watches, enabling them to detect swimming.

Also, a teardown of the iPhone 7 indicates the presence of a specialised barometer – the Bosch BMP280 to be precise. This would highlight the scope for advanced operations, including floor and elevator detection in indoor navigation, enhanced GPS navigations which indicate slopes and even health care applications such as spirometry for respiration rates.

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(Image Source: Bosch)

But at the end of the day, correlation is the name of the game, and the information that is being recorded by the motion coprocessors needs to be correlated with other data such as location based information (which is in turn taken from the location sensors) and geofences. This would result in data regarding miles run, run analysis with elevation information, sleep analysis and sleep phases. The possibilities are quite endless really.

WHAT’S GOOGLE UPTO?

The Pixel lineup comes with the Android Sensor Hub processor with some tightly integrated sensors incorporated. This includes the usual suspects in the form of the accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer, with integrations with the Wi-Fi, cellular and GPS modules.

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Like the motion coprocessor, the Sensor Hub manages sensory inputs without having to include the main CPU. Originally introduced last year with the Nexus 6P and 5X lineup, the Sensor Hub came with hardware sensor batching, that allowed sensors to delay handing off non-critical data to the operating system for a short time, thereby making actions like recording steps taken all the more efficient.

Android Nougat has some additional features which make sensor operations more efficient and precise. Doze – a feature introduced in Android Marshmallow – is now capable of saving battery on the go. According to the official Google documentation, “[a]ny time the screen is off for a period of time and the device is unplugged, Doze applies a subset of the familiar CPU and network restrictions to apps. This means users can save battery even when carrying their devices in their pockets.”

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(Image Source: Google Developers)

Project Svelte, in turn, minimizes the RAM usage for applications running in the background. It enables applications to be more context aware and snappier. Take a look at all things new here.

BOTTOM LINE

All things considered, smartphone sensors might not be undergoing significant changes, but the processors responsible for controlling them certainly are. Implications of this would include more applications tapping into more information from the phone, whether it’s motion, sleep or even other health parameters. And that’s’ great news for lifelogging based app developers and lifeloggers alike.

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