While it didn't get a big moment on stage, Apple has said the chip will provide the new iPhone models with “amazing new capabilities”, including a more accurate version of AirDrop with iOS 13. Here's everything you need to know about it.
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What is Apple's U1 chip?
The U1 is a new chip by Apple that allows its latest iPhone models to precisely locate and communicate with other U1-equipped devices. It also offers improved spatial awareness. The U1 joins other "dedicated" chips developed by Apple, like the W1 and the newer H1 chip found in AirPods. Each chip has specialised tasks it handles, helping Apple's devices to work more efficiently and integrate better.
Since Apple designs its own chips, including the U1, and is not relying on a supplier for them, it's able to exert tighter control over its ecosystem.
What does 'U1' mean?
Well, we know the “U” in U1 stands for “ultra-wideband”. Related to Bluetooth Low Energy, ultra-wideband is a low-energy, short-range radio technology primarily used for wireless data transmission. The distance between two ultra-wideband-equipped devices can be measured much more precisely by calculating the time that it takes for a radio wave to pass between the two devices.
Note: Ultra-wideband is also commonly shortened to UWB.
What can Apple's U1 chip do?
Marketing materials on Apple’s website described the U1 as a basis of Apple's new directional version of AirDrop, which can determine where you’re pointing your phone when you’re trying to share files. “Think GPS at the scale of your living room,” Apple explained. “So if you want to share a file with someone using AirDrop, just point your iPhone at theirs and they’ll be first on the list.”
Apple said the U1 chip uses ultra-wideband technology for "spatial awareness" - or so the iPhone 11 Pro can locate other U1-equipped Apple devices. "It's like adding another sense to iPhone," Apple explained.
Keep in mind Apple is also merging Find My Friends and Find My iPhone into a single app - called Find My - with iOS 13. Find My has a feature that will allow others to find your lost devices. So, if you lose your new iPhone 11, you can mark your phone as lost, and then Apple will crowdsource its location by asking all Apple devices to look for your phone's signal. Once found, you’ll get an alert.
Another one of those "amazing new capabilities" is likely related to Apple's upcoming Apple Tags, a Tile-like accessory that reportedly attaches to items such as your keys to track them. Even when not connected to the internet, they constantly send out Bluetooth signals. These signals will be noticed by any nearby iOS device, and its location is sent - anonymous and encrypted - to Apple.
Apple Tags, if that's their name, will likely feature ultra wideband, according to analyst Ming-Chi Kuo. Code in the iOS 13 beta suggested Apple Tags were coming soon, but unfortunately, they didn't show up at Apple's iPhone 11 event. We presume Apple underpinned Apple Tags with this wireless technology because it's more accurate than the more commonly used Bluetooth LE and Wi-Fi.
Apple Tags are expected to be so accurate that their location can even show up in the Find My app in an augmented reality view of a room.
Which Apple devices have the U1 chip?
The iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max models are all equipped with the U1 ultra-wideband chip.
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Is that it?
One can't help but wonder if other U1-equipped, Apple-branded accessories are in the works? It's hard to say for certain, as the U1 chip is clearly not fully realised yet. Maybe if Apple holds an event in October, as is expected, we'll hear more.