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Apple keeps raising the bar

When Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) unveiled the new iPad, the tablet brought some friends along the upgrade path. Some stealthy changes under the hood of older products will both boost Cupertino’s profit margins even further and serve as a testing ground for next-generation designs.

The third-generation iPad runs on an Apple-designed A5X processor, based on the same ARM Holdings (Nasdaq: ARMH) processor technology as the A5 chip in iPad 2 and the iPhone 4S but with some subtle differences. A beefier graphics system helps the processor manage the 3 million pixels on the 10-inch Retina display. According to the hardware analysis experts at Chipworks, the processor is still made by Samsung using the same 45-nanometer process technology as the A5 or indeed the even older A4.

The star turn everybody missed
With the iPad on stage, it was all too easy to overlook the updated Apple TV set-top box that was introduced the same day. The overall product may not be terribly inspiring, or even that much of a functional upgrade over the previous version, but once you rip the case open to look at the chips inside, things get real interesting.

Credit Chipworks for another scoop as the firm found the A5 — not A5X — processor being manufactured on a more advanced process technology. Using Samsung’s newer 32-nanometer process with lots of efficiency-boosting bells and chip-shrinking whistles, this A5 chip does the same job as the original A5, but on a 40% smaller chip that uses much less electric power.

And that’s not all. The newer, smaller, and less power-hungry A5 processor can also be found inside a small number of iPad 2 tablets. Enthusiast site Anandtech found a few of these in Best Buy (NYSE: BBY) stores but was unable to dig them up anywhere else. Maybe Best Buy got first dibs on a test run of the improved tablet, or perhaps that’s just the way the cookie crumbled in a random distribution. Either way, you can’t tell whether you have the old or the new chip in your iPad 2 without running an app to report what’s inside.

That’s a win-win-win proposal
So what’s the upshot of all this high-tech gobbledygook? Well …

  • Samsung should be able to make about 75% more chips from the same raw materials when using the newer process. We’re talking serious cost savings here, since the cost of a processor is determined by how efficiently you can manufacture it. That translates directly into higher margins for both Samsung and Apple.
  • The smaller chip makes for a significant leap in battery life. Anandtech found a 32-nm A5 outlasting a 45-nm version by as much as 18% in some tests. Show me a consumer who claims that battery life doesn’t matter, and I’ll show you a liar.
  • Testing the new manufacturing process in a couple of lower-volume products like an older iPad and the hobby-like Apple TV lets Samsung and Apple iron out any kinks in the process and design. Even if the chip architecture is the same, new manufacturing processes always add some risk. This is a very sensible way to manage the transition to a better technology. Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) works a very similar strategy in its famed tick-tock development model, and there’s nothing wrong with copying plays from the best in the business.

With these trials under its belt, Apple should move to 32-nm manufacturing in a big way fairly soon. Chances are, the 2012 iteration of the iPhone will make the most of the new manufacturing mojo with longer battery life and lower manufacturing costs. The 2013 iPad should follow suit, and perhaps 32-nm chips will replace the older variant in iPad 2 and 3 as we go along.

Apple already dominates the mobile computing market. Cupertino and Samsung sell more than half of all smartphones today, and Apple keeps the lion’s share of the profits.

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A version of this article, written by Anders Bylund, originally appeared on fool.com

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