Understanding the iPhone 3GSby Anand Lal Shimpi on July 7, 2009 12:00 AM EST
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I get some sort of odd satisfaction when Apple releases a product whose fundamental improvement is a new CPU. It happened when Apple first announced the MacBook Air, and it happened once more with the new iPhone 3GS:
From Left to Right: iPhone 3GS, iPhone 3G, iPhone
From a distance you can’t tell it apart from the iPhone 3G, which itself was arguably a step back in design from the original aluminum iPhone. But Apple products only sell because they look pretty right? How on earth would Apple ever justify selling an iPhone 3GS whose fundamental improvement is inside its pretty plastic?
To make matters worse, Apple has trained its users to expect significant changes in styling and UI on a regular basis. Just look at the progression of Mac OS X over the past several years. However, even with the latest iPhone OS release and significant technological pressure from Palm, the UI remains unchanged.
Competing against Microsoft and the other smartphone makers was pretty easy. Just do what they did, only better. But here we have the latest iPhone and it’s already behind the Palm Pre in a number of key features. Uhoh.
Yes, the S stands for Speed with the new iPhone 3GS but is that enough to keep this train rolling? We needed speed last year with the iPhone 3G, and all we got was a faster modem and lower battery life. Now we need multitasking support and we finally get a faster processor. Apple seems to be one step behind in the needs department, which is the perfect recipe for a company like Palm to step in and surprise.
Stepping away from the broader picture for a moment, Apple heads and haters alike can both appreciate the technology behind the 3GS, because the transition itself echoes what we’ve seen happen in the PC industry over the past two decades.
In my first iPhone 3GS article I compared the CPU upgrade to what we saw going from the 486 to Intel’s Pentium processor in the mid 1990s. Perhaps we need a quick refresher in CPU architecture? I’ll see if I can keep this succinct.
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MrJim - Wednesday, July 8, 2009 - linkWhy no mention of the heat issues?
ViRGE - Wednesday, July 8, 2009 - linkAnand, if you haven't already, jailbreak the 3GS and grab SysInfoPlus from Cydia. It may be able to tell you the clock speed of the 3GS's ARM, although to what extent I'm not sure since it hasn't been specifically programmed for the A8.
ltcommanderdata - Wednesday, July 8, 2009 - linkI don't suppose that program can also tell the GPU clock speed too?
I always thought that the MBX work at bus speed, ie. 103MHz for the iPhone/3G and 133MHz for the 2nd Gen iPod Touch instead of the 60Mhz that Anand has speculated. Assuming the iPhone 3G S has a 150MHz bus speed, the SGX could run at 150MHz which is a reasonable compromise between Anand's 100MHz and 200MHz estimates.
fyleow - Wednesday, July 8, 2009 - linkHow useful is the new GPU? The iPhone's performance has come a long way from the first generation but I don't see developers taking full advantage of the jump. If you bump up the graphics of your game it might run smoothly on the 3GS but end up lagging on the 1st gen iPhone.
The increase in load times and battery life is much welcomed, but when do we get to see some apps that take advantage of the upgraded hardware in other more interesting ways? I can see a resolution increase as being one way to do that. The game would look better on a higher resolution screen but performance wouldn't suffer on the older models because the lower resolution would place less demand on the hardware.
2010 will be an interesting year. There should be a bigger upgrade to the iPhone, most likely a resolution bump and a significantly modified OS that supports background tasks. Apple has been keeping all the devices on the iPhone platform on feature parity so far with the OS upgrades (minus obvious limitations due to hardware differences). It would be interesting to see how they handle the switch and the resulting two classes of phones that come from it (i.e. old "legacy" iPhones/Touch vs new iPhones/Touch).
ltcommanderdata - Wednesday, July 8, 2009 - linkYou're right that it's difficult to take full advantage of the SGX without writing a separate dedicated code path for it and one for the MBX. However, there are simpler ways to take advantage of the iPhone 3G S power without writing 2 separate code paths. For example, you can scale draw distance based on hardware. Firemint demonstrated the iPhone 3G S accelerating 40 cars in Real Racing compared to 6 in the iPhone 3G, so the potential for better scalable AI is there. For a RPG, perhaps having more NPCs walking around to make the environment more lifelike. This can all be done using existing OpenGL ES 1.1 code playable on all iPhones/Touches, optimizing for each device, without making older iPhone users feel like they are playing some Lite version of the game as implementing shaders and HDR using OpenGL ES 2.0 in the iPhone 3G S might do.
I believe the reluctance of Apple to change the resolution is that it could break the interface layout for existing apps and/or make things ugly if apps haven't used vector graphics. It would have been nice if they had enforced resolution independence early on, but I don't believe they did. Resolution independence is also what is needed for Apple to introduce an iPhone nano with a smaller screen and presumably smaller resolution.
smallpot - Wednesday, July 8, 2009 - linkThanks for the article Anand. Your long-form articles are the reason Anandtech is my number one tech website. I'm thinking of articles such as this, your articles on SSD performance, and the long-form story behind the RV770. After reading such articles, I really feel like I've learned something, rather than just had performance metrics thrown at me without context.
Baron Fel - Tuesday, July 7, 2009 - linkInteresting article.
As far as portable gaming goes, the Ipod Touch/iPhone/Zune HD dont have a chance against the DS or even the PSP. The software support just isnt there.
PSP hardware runs circles around the DS, so why is the DS killing it in sales? Good games.
and are we getting more SSD articles anytime soon? I think thats what we want to see :D
ltcommanderdata - Tuesday, July 7, 2009 - linkGiven all the media attention about discoloration and possible heat issues with the iPhone 3G S, I was wondering if you could comment on your experience in this area. Do you think it's a real concern or just stories popularized to generate page hits as Apple related stories tend to do? The latest reports on discoloration indicate that it might actually be from a reaction with some third-party cases that may be reversed by cleaning with alcohol.
Similarly, there have been lower-key reports of build quality issues with the Palm Pre having a wobbly screen from it's slide-out keyboard. Has this been a major issue for you and do you think it'll be an issue over time?
Anand Lal Shimpi - Tuesday, July 7, 2009 - linkI haven't seen anything to indicate heat as being a bigger concern with the 3GS. It's a new processor so there's bound to be some bad chips out there, but I wouldn't be too concerned.
The build quality on the Pre did bother me. It's something that I think bothered me more because of my experience with the iPhone. The screen was a bit wobbly and overall the device just didn't feel as well put together. Part of it is because of the slide out keyboard, but part of it has to be cost/experience related. I think you'd get used to it over time, but if you then held an iPhone you'd quickly grow tired of the build quality issues once again :)
tomoyo - Tuesday, July 7, 2009 - linkBtw Anand, the chart for number of stages in the cpus shows the Iphone 3GS as 8 stage instead of 13.