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How Apple's U1 chip adds 'amazing' new capabilities to the iPhone

When Apple announced the new iPhone 11, it also quickly introduced a U1 chip.

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.

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.

Since Apple designs its own chips, including the U1, and not relying on a supplier for them, it’s able to exert tighter control over its hardware ecosystem. Each chip has specialised tasks, too, helping Apple’s devices to work more efficiently, and to integrate together better.

What does ‘U1’ mean?

The “U” in U1 stands for “ultra-wideband”. Sort of like a cousin to Bluetooth Low Energy, ultra-wideband is a low-energy, short-range radio technology primarily used for wireless data transmission. As for the “1”, it likely means first generation.

What can Apple’s U1 chip do?

AirDrop

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.”

Locating tracking

Apple said the U1 chip uses ultra-wideband technology for “spatial awareness” – or so that the iPhone 11 Pro can locate other U1-equipped Apple devices. “It’s like adding another sens to iPhone, and it’s going to lead to amazing new capabilities.”

Keep in mind that, with iOS 13, Apple is merging Find My Friends and Find My iPhone into a single app, called Find My. And it has a feature that will allow others to find your lost devices. So, if you lose your iPhone, 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. 

Apple Tag

Another one of those “amazing new capabilities” is likely related to Apple’s upcoming Apple Tag, a Tile-like accessory that can attach to items such as your keys to track them. Code in the iOS 13 beta suggested it was coming, but it didn’t show up at Apple’s iPhone 11 event. Still, add it all up, and the Apple Tag likely has a U1 chip, so the new iPhone can track it via ultra wideband.

Perhaps more 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, but if Apple holds an event in October, as is expected, then maybe we will hear more then.


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