When Apple launched the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, executives on stage went through many features that had been predicted before the event. Among them were a newly improved camera system, an updated SoC and a larger battery. Interestingly, the company didn't say much about the new U1 chip, which is perhaps the most significant addition to its latest smartphone and Watch Series 5.
The tiny piece of silicon uses ultra-wideband technology that powers new location tracking in iOS 13, and is expected to extend to future Apple accessories as well. It uses short-range radio technology that will improve the spatial awareness of the company's new devices and allow you to quickly pinpoint their precise location.
According to a report by iFixit, the U1 is Apple's own design that builds on top of Decawave's Ultra Wideband DW1000 chip which offers similar capabilities. Specifically, it uses a wireless standard called 802.15.4z and operates at a higher frequency than 5Ghz to allow precise radio-based positioning accurate down to a few centimeters.
It's worth noting that Apple utilizes 500 Mhz channels, which are much wider than Wi-Fi's 20 to 80 Mhz, or Bluetooth's 2 Mhz channels. The main benefits are speed and latency, and since it operates in a spectrum that isn't used by other gadgets, there's also a lower risk for interference. And even though it's designed to send large amounts of data over short distances, it takes very little power to achieve that.
Apple says AirDrop is "just the beginning," and judging by the understated capabilities of the new U1 chip, the company may be looking to integrate it across its ecosystem of devices and accessories.
The AirPods are an obvious candidate, but we also know from iOS 13 code that Apple may be preparing a tracking fob. There's also the possibility of the mysterious AR glasses that have been on the rumor mill for some time now, which could use the U1 chip to enable multiple people to play a game in the same room.