First, two quotes from my review of the original iPhone:

“The issue is that the iPhone interface is just as responsive as a computer, so you inherently expect the sort of performance you'd see on a notebook and it's just impossible on a device like the iPhone."

“I think overall we need a handful of upgrades to the iPhone alongside 3G; we need a faster processor, possibly more system memory, maybe even faster flash. The MLC flash in the iPhone has absolutely horrendous write speeds compared to SLC, which could be holding the iPhone back a bit. I can see Apple introducing a 3G version in about 12 months, addressing many of these issues at the same time.”

Indeed, 12 months after the launch of the first iPhone - Apple did fix the wireless performance issues with the iPhone 3G. Unfortunately, the hardware remained untouched. All of my other complaints in those two quotes remained open ticket items between Apple and I. In fact, things got worse. Here we have what I wrote at the end of my iPhone 3G review:

“Apple must be wary of the direction the iPhone is headed in. While the UI was absolutely perfect for the phone that launched a year ago, today’s iPhone is hardly the same. With easily over twice as many applications on an iPhone today vs. a year ago, performance and navigation have both suffered. The impact isn’t tremendous, but Apple will have to adjust the iPhone accordingly in order to avoid turning the platform into a bloated, complicated mess.”

Two days ago, Apple announced the iPhone 3GS - designed to address one thing: performance. The other half of my complaint in the conclusion of my 3G review, addressing navigation and UI with the new expanded iPhone platform, isn’t addressed by the 3GS. I suspect that in another year we’ll see that. But today, it’s about hardware.

The Impetus

After yesterday's Pre vs. iPhone 3G battery life article I got a few emails from people very close to the chips used in the iPhone 3GS. A couple of exchanges later and I realized it might be time to go a little deeper with the hardware behind the iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS and the Palm Pre.

The Original

The iPhone and iPhone 3G use a system on a chip (SoC) from Samsung. The SoC is a custom part and actually has Apple’s logo on the chip. The SoC houses the CPU, GPU and memory for the iPhone.

The CPU is based on the ARM11 core, in specific it is the ARM1176JZF-S. The CPU runs at 412MHz to save power, although the core is capable of running at 667MHz. The ARM11 CPU is a single-issue in-order microprocessor with an 8-stage integer pipeline. It’s got a 32KB L1 cache (16KB for instructions, 16KB for data) and no L2 cache. The ARM11 CPU in the iPhone also has a vector floating point unit, but thankfully the SoC includes a separate GPU for 3D acceleration. You can think of this core as a very high clocked, very advanced 486. And extremely low power. Under typical load, the CPU core should consume around 100mW. By comparison, the CPU in your laptop can require anywhere from 10 - 35W. Idle power is even lower.

Paired with this CPU is a PowerVR MBX-Lite GPU core. This GPU, like the CPU, is built on a 90nm process and is quite simple. The GPU does support hardware transform and lighting but it’s fully fixed function, think of it as a DirectX 6/7 class GPU (Riva TNT2/GeForce 256). Here’s PowerVR’s block diagram of the MBX:

The MBX-Lite in the iPhone shares the same architecture as the MBX but is optimized, once more, for power efficiency and thus is significantly slower.

I don’t have exact clock speed information for the MBX-Lite in the iPhone but I’m guessing around 60MHz.

Coupled with the CPU and the GPU in the iPhone’s SoC is 128MB of DDR memory, all on the same chip. It’s a pretty impressive little package. You get a CPU, GPU and memory all in a package that’s physically smaller than Intel’s Atom.

Now the 486 came out in 1989 and the original 3dfx Voodoo graphics card came out in 1996. The iPhone’s SoC would be ridiculously powerful if it were running the sorts of applications we had back then, but it’s not. We’re asking a lot from this little core and although it has performed admirably thanks to some clever software engineering on Apple’s part, it’s time for an update.

Enter the ARM Cortex A8
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  • jasaero - Friday, June 12, 2009 - link

    I am guessing Apple gets a better deal with Samsung as I think most of the flash in iPods was from them prior to iPhone. TI may make flash memory, but pretty sure they don't touch Samsung volume. From what I can gather also the Samsung ASIC and OMAP are pretty much the same anyhow or atleast have pretty close ARM/IM SoC matched lines. Reply
  • jasaero - Thursday, June 11, 2009 - link

    I am with you 100% on this. If you goto page 5 of these comments I linked to some good info on what is behind snapdragon and qualcomm's plans now that they own AMD/ATI handheld graphics IP. They also spent 100's of millions making their cortex core more powerful than the competition also. I am with you on Anand doing a more in depth look at the competing offerings here using his connections to get info tough to find for us. Its intersting stuff as this market is more IP oriented, but Qualcomm, intel and probably a lot of others add their own IP as they package these things in SoC's. Reply
  • iwodo - Friday, June 12, 2009 - link

    Yes I read it. On paper Qualcomm seems to have an edge on everything. ATI powered Graphics, Better then Cortex A8 design, and expertise in Mobile Wireless Chipset.

    However it doesn't seems any Manufacture are using their chips. From the charts Mainly Japaneses and Korean ( LG ) based phone maker. Given LG recently switched side to Non Qualcomm based to due to cost issues. We will see even less QualComm chip in Global Market since Japaneses Handset are not exported and unusable outside Japan.
    Reply
  • Barack Obama - Thursday, June 11, 2009 - link

    Was waiting to see what the fuss about Iphone 3G S was about. If I wasn't already tied down to a 2 year contract I'd buy one.

    Do you think Apple will gain dominance over the phone market as they seemingly are or other companies will get their feet in the door? Apple is looking at a Windows-like monopoly of the mobile phone market at the moment!
    Reply
  • anandtech02148 - Wednesday, June 10, 2009 - link

    these smartphones will eventually make PC, laptop, & netbook less rellevant, Apple already has 50,000 apps just for iphone, do they even have that much apps for their own macbook line?
    Intel,Amd & Nvidia is becoming a niche, with consoles and smartphone taking their customers away little by little.
    the only weakness to smartphone is how badly these cartel cellular operate. Get your acts together At&T and get aggressive broadband roll out.

    Reply
  • Mazik - Wednesday, June 10, 2009 - link

    "If Apple would just get their pre-ordering system working right I might not even have to camp out this year..."

    ...you can pre-order on att.com
    Reply
  • snookie - Wednesday, June 10, 2009 - link

    "Apple could be their own worst enemy with this faster hardware, and they have been seen to drop legacy support quite quickly already (Snow Leopard anyone?), things that other people can't get away with."

    Apple drop legacy support quite easily? No. You don't know anything about the history of Mac OS if you say that. Google Rosetta for one. Look at how long people are able to continue to install the latest Mac OS on old hardware for another. SL is a major rewrite of huge portions of the OS that Windows 7 could only dream about. It's the kind of rewrite that Microsoft doesn't have the skills, the will, or organization to do.

    "Palm has the Pre, it has faster hardware."

    Not anymore. Read the article.

    "The problem here is that either Apple developers are going to have to develop for the (s)lowest common denominator (20million units), and either risk annoying customers by making them unable to use the stuff/forcing them to upgrade, or making applications which aren't as impressive as they could be."

    Palm wishes they could have this "problem'". Palm has every little money in the bank and is in league with Sprint which is the most dubious cell company in existence right now. They make AT&T look good. They have terrible dev tools, have already pissed of a lot of developers, and you can only write web apps for the Pre. 8GB of ram and the terrible keyboard are showstoppers for me.
    Developing for iPhone or Pre is a quite easy decision. iPhone has the mass of the marketplace and a real SDK. Palm has neither and may never have.

    "While Leopard had nearly as shaky/buggy a start as Vista (though 99.9% of Mac users won't admit it), Leopard has reportedly morphed into a very stable and serviceable system."

    You must have dreamed this. Leopard had nowhere near the shaky start of Vista. I used both Leopard and Vista pre-beta and RC for many months. Its really amazing the things people say with no idea what they are talking about.

    "The greatest weakness of the iPhone is the controls."

    Why, because it doesn't have the kind of controls you are used to? Developers have done amazing things with multi-touch and the accelerometer.

    "The average phone user doesn't care much about games and game controls"

    I don't know what you consider average. Apple does in fact care about games and the iPhone and plenty of iPhone users buy them. Enough for a very robust marketplace. Check the numbers.

    I'm interested to hear about the radios and if we can expect better, stronger, clearer signals.
    Reply
  • michaely - Wednesday, June 10, 2009 - link

    2 cents? All you gave was a penny. I laughed at your post so much. Could you be anymore of a fanboy? You purposely go out of your way to diss Microsoft and Palm, but completely ignore the points you quoted. Snow Leopard is Intel only (READ: no G4/G5). Where is the support? You are talking about the past, we are in the present and looking to the future.

    The sad thing is you probably don't even own a iPhone. You are a sad excuse of a fanboy. PERIOD.
    Reply
  • jasaero - Wednesday, June 10, 2009 - link

    Anand,

    You hint ARM and Imagination Tech own the mobile procesing space here, but wondering if you have any write ups in the works that compare the PowerVR based intgrated GPU offerings to th also popular Qualcomm ATI based cores? Also in January Qualcomm purchased the ATI handheld unit and got rights to all related IP along with some staff to keep said mobile ATI core competitive.

    To me this could mean an advantage for qualcomm 's Snapdragon if PowerVR's cores aren't a lot better than Qualcomms ATI or PowerVR offering VERY affordable licencing? I know this goes outside the iPhone 3Gs review a bit, but it will have probably ALOT of snapdragon competitors soon! And some of these Snapdragon competitors could show up with even more mature Android.
    Reply
  • jasaero - Wednesday, June 10, 2009 - link

    Here is some good info on the unique ARMv7 ISA based Scorpion core used in snapdragon! I for the life of me can't find info on the ATI handheld core that Qualcomm uses and now owns?? They seem to have invested more in the ARMv7 ISA than their more or less standard Cortex competition. Of particular interest is the lower power and double width SIMD unit.

    Now who can find info on this ATI core?
    Reply

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