64-bit smartphones

When it comes to desktop and laptop computing, 64-bit is pretty much a given, though many apps are still stuck in 32-bit limbo, running quietly alongside their 64-bit siblings. What’s really nice is that you don’t even notice the difference whether they’re 32-bit or 64-bit, the apps just work. Now, 64-bit Androids are here – sort of.

I was first in line back when 64-bit was coming to desktop computers. Jumping to 64-bit meant a new motherboard, new hardware, and most importantly, a new CPU. To take full advantage of all this new hardware, a 64-bit operating system complete with 64-bit drivers were required. Luckily, when the new consumer hardware was available, the 64-bit consumer OS was also ready to go. However, thanks to the way the hardware was built, you didn’t need to jump to 64-bit right away. You could stick with 32-bit until you were ready, and many did.

Mobile technology isn’t much different. Inside our smartphones and tablets we have a motherboard (of sorts) and an SoC that acts as the CPU (and a bunch of other components all in one package). Apple was the first of the major mobile vendors to make the 64-bit jump. Most people didn’t even notice – and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Google, on the other hand, only recently announced 64-bit support for Android – and it’s not here yet. Android L, with 64-bit support, is scheduled to release sometime this year.

(If you’re wondering what 64-bit support is going to bring, make sure you check out our article “Everything you need to know about 64-bit smartphones“).

64-bit androidsIn the meantime, Qualcomm unveiled its Snapdragon 410, 610, 615, 808, and 810 platforms, all with 64-bit architecture; a Tegra K1 variant with 64-bit from NVIDIA surfaced in benchmarks a few months ago; and Samsung and Intel both announced plans to jump to 64-bit mobile processors sometime in the near future.

Now, the future has finally arrived! HTC announced the Desire 510, the first of the 64-bit Androids – well, almost.

The SoC powering the Desire 510 is the mid-range Snapdragon 410, which uses ARM’s Cortex A53 CPU architecture. It’s not a high-end super-phone like many in the industry would have imagined. Instead, it’s powered by a low-end, quad-core chip running at 1.2 GHz – hardly anything to write home about. What’s particularly interesting is that, although the hardware supports 64-bit, the software (including the OS), is still very much 32-bit. Why? Android L isn’t available yet.

Should you care?

This is one of those “chicken and the egg” paradoxes. In this case, the hardware is ready, but the OS needs to catch up. That’s okay. I suspect HTC will release an OTA update which will bring Android L to the Desire 510, and presumably 64-bit support as well. Once that happens, with the 64-bit version of the Android Runtime (ART), all your apps should magically be run as 64-bit apps, giving you all the advantages of a 64-bit eco-system without having to wait for developers to update and push new versions of their apps.

All this boils down to the question: although 64-bit Androids are here, should you care?

The answer, whether you’re a fan of 64-bit architecture or not, is a definitive yes. While you may not see huge improvements in performance, 64-bit sure does “smooth out the ride”, allowing extra space (RAM, processing power, etc.) for resource-hungry apps. As mobile apps become more demanding, 64-bit SoCs will become even more important. Future-proofing the hardware is a legitimate argument in favor of 64-bit support, and I’m glad to see that HTC has taken the bold step to do so with one of their budget devices.

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