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.

A Crash Course in CPU Architecture
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  • DLeRium - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    It's unacceptable because what? HTC Touch Diamond 2 and Touch Pro 2 are flagship phones with ARM11 processors? Yes I pointed out some phones that have it, but have you guys even seriously used an S60 phone? Multiple S60 phones? I've gone through N80, N95, N82, and I've toyed with an N85 and 5800 also. The N97 is certainly fine in usability. It could use some more RAM, but even if you stuffed a Cortex A8 and some more RAM, the phone is still going to get a lot of flak except for people who look at it on paper. Symbian S60v5 is perfectly fine on ARM11. It doesn't need some insane CPU to keep up with the UI.

    Moreover, the N97 isn't really that much of a gaming platform like the iPhone. Think of the N97 like the Touch Pro 2. The Touch Pro 2 is more business oriented with the QWERTY and everything. HTC didn't upgrade the camera, and didn't bother to build it the same way the flagship Diamond 2 was built. This doesn't mean it's a BAD phone.

    You guys are thinking of this whole thing like a computer or something. Have you seen the N95 photos? It's a 2007 phone. Pretty much the best 5MP all around. The N97 does a little better. Yes it demolishes the 3MP crap on the 3GS. So coming from a more computer-centric crowd here yes it makes sense to bash a CPU, but from a mobile phone perspective it's not even that bad at all. If anything the phone was first a phone before it was a camera and then an MP3 player, and now a powerhouse mini computer. If you're telling me that in 2006 I could've bought a Sony Ericsson 3 MP cameraphone, then why are we still stuck there on the 3GS? There are more important features that phones push for such as music, camera, later GPS and connectivity, and now processing power. Give it some time and I bet you Nokia will have a winner soon.

    What crappy screen on the N97? Resistive? Get over it. The iPhone is capacitive, so all phones must be capacitive? The iPhone has a Cortex A8, everything else must have it? Please. Multi touch is patented by Apple, so it's a little difficult to move into that arena for now. There are advantages and disadvantages to both resistive and capacitive screens. Just because the N97 doesn't mimick the iPhone doesn't mean it sucks. HTC's WinMo phones are resistive screens too. So are the new Samsung Omnia II and Pro phones. So is the new Sony Ericsson Satio.

    Different phones are built differently, but honestly when you look at pure functionality, the lack of multitasking is much larger than a CPU difference.

    I feel it is justified to say Nokia needs to get to work, but to hear this from people who really doesn't have as much experience with unlocked phones is like hearing one of those ditzy people who buys Apple thinking it'll solve their spyware problems on their PC tell you why a Mac is superior. I'd rather hear it from the computer guru. Gizmodo may be negative, but I think Engadget gave the N97 a fair look and so did other reviewers like PhoneArena, GSMArena, Mobile-Burn, Symbian-Guru.

    Look I have nothing against Apple. I have a 3GS too. It's just not my thing and I'm back on my N-series. I'm not a Nokia fanboy or anything. There's plenty of criticism I've given the N97 and Nokia in the S60 section of HoFo, but I believe having had 3 iPhones, Anand is quite biased.
    Reply
  • vshah - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    Anand,
    Thanks for this excellent article, I really enjoyed the cpu benchmark/comparisons you did; they paint a very clear picture.

    I was curious as to your thoughts on the multitasking implementation on Android. Holding down home for a couple seconds brings up the 6 most recently accessed apps/tasks, and I've always found switching between them to be pretty fluid. Have you had a chance to try that out?

    Thanks,
    Vivan
    Reply
  • MrX8503 - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    This isn't even a phone site and it has the most in depth review of the iphone yet.

    I guess being a tech site, Anandtech has an edge over other sites that just review phones.

    Good Work!
    Reply
  • kmmatney - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    I needed a new phone for work, and spent about 30 minutes in the local AT&T store testing out phones yesterday. After using the blackberry and iPhone for quite some time, I have to say the iPhone was much better. I was way more productive with it - everything was easy to do, while I felt like all the other phones were fighting me. Overall, a fantastic phone for business - I went for the 16GB 3GS model - the only gripe is the 7 day wait for shipment. Reply
  • sprockkets - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    You mentioned using voice command. Can you use it via a BT headset?

    Also, does it play ringtones over the headset? Does it announce who is calling over the headset?
    Reply
  • nafhan - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    Thanks for a great article!

    One minor complaint, and it's really not even a complaint. I want to point out that this would have made two excellent stand alone articles.

    First article would have been about the current state of mobile CPU and GPU architecture. This section was excellent and detailed enough that I really felt it deserved it's own article rather than being lumped in as part of your iPhone impressions.

    Second article would have been your impressions and review of the 3GS.
    Reply
  • WeaselITB - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    I agree with this - it does seem that there are two articles vying for attention here, and with a bit more polish they could have been published separately.

    That said, I do want to commend you for this article. These are the types of in-depth reports that made me start reading AT ten or so years ago, and they are the type of in-depth reports that keep me reading. Thanks, Anand.
    Reply
  • Rolphus - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    I think this is an important point. Apple see the iPhone as a device, exactly the same as the iPod. No "user" compares about the iPod's CPU, any more than they care about the CPU of their refrigerator. For it to be a true consumer device (rather than a computer), it should "just work", and work with acceptable performance, in all the situations it's designed for.

    Yes, us techies want to know more, and that's precisely why we come to sites like Anandtech and read your articles. I don't think the mainstream user is ever going to care about these specs, but rather what the phone can do.
    Reply
  • medi01 - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    Wouldn't it be better to review alternatives? Like Samsung's new shiny MOLED display smartphone? Reply
  • wuyanxu - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    superb article! a lot more indepth than all other websites. would love to see more like this, with more information on how the graphics cores improved its performance.

    however, what you should not forget is avaliability of jailbreak for 3GS. in the conclusion you've mentioned the hassle of re-launching apps. with a jailbreak, you will be able to send an app to background and get instant re-lanuch.

    my dream phone would be an iPhone with Andriod-like pull-down status bar notification system, and have JB's backgrounder come as standard.
    the pull down status bar will have the top 2/3 to be notifications. press to launch its apps. the bottom 1/3 will be icons of opened apps, and to close it, simply drag the icon to a reserved area.
    the idea is similar to a jailbroken app called mQuickDo, except with the notification system.
    Reply

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