General Purpose Performance

Section by Anand Shimpi

Apple's philosophy on increasing iPhone performance is sort of a mix between what Microsoft is doing with Windows Phone 7/8 and what the high-end Android smartphone makers have been doing. On the software side Apple does as much as possible to ensure its devices feel fast, although I notice a clear tendency for newer iOS releases to pretty much require the latest iPhone hardware in order to maintain that speedy feel over the long haul. When it comes to hardware, Apple behaves very much like a high-end Android smartphone vendor by putting the absolute fastest silicon on the market in each generation of iPhone. The main difference here is that Apple controls both the software stack and silicon, so it's able to deliver a fairly well bundled package each year. It's a costly operation to run, one that is enabled by Apple's very high profit margins. Ironically enough, if Apple's competitors would significantly undercut Apple (it doesn't cost $599 - $799 to build a modern smartphone) I don't know that the formula would be able to work for Apple in the long run (Apple needs high margins to pay for OS, software and silicon development, all of which are internalized by Apple and none of which burden most of its competitors).

Good cross platform benchmarks still don't really exist on smartphones these days. We're left describing experience with words and trying to quantify performance differences using web based benchmarks, neither of which is ideal but both of which will have to do for now. The iPhone 5 experience compared to the 4S is best explained as just being snappier. Apps launch faster, scrolling around iOS Maps is smoother, web pages take less time to load and the occasional CPU/ISP bound task (e.g. HDR image processing) is significantly quicker. If you're the type of person who appreciates improvements in response time, the iPhone 5 delivers.

How does it compare to the current crop of high-end Android smartphones? I would say that the 5 generally brings CPU performance up to par with the latest and greatest in the Android camp, and in some cases surprasses them slightly. It's difficult making cross platform comparisons because of huge differences in the OSes as well as separating out tasks that are CPU bound from those that simply benefit from a higher rendered frame rate.

I took a cross section of various web based benchmarks and looked at their performance to help quantify where the iPhone 5 stands in the world. First up are the RIABench focus tests, these are javascript benchmarks that focus on various compute bound tasks. I used Chrome for all Android devices to put their best foot forward.

RIABench Focus-tests

This first test shows just how slow the 800MHz Cortex A9s in the iPhone 4S were compared to the latest and greatest from Qualcomm and NVIDIA. At roughly half the clock speed of those competitors, the 4S was just much slower at compute bound tasks. Apple was able to mask as much of that as possible with smooth UI rendering performance, but there was obviously room for improvement. The iPhone 5 delivers just that. It modernizes the iPhone's performance and inches ahead of the Tegra 3/Snapdragon S4 platforms. Only Intel's Atom Z2460 in the Motorola RAZR i is able to outperform it.

Next up is Kraken, a seriously heavy javascript benchmark built by Mozilla. Kraken focuses on forward looking applications that are potentially too slow to run in modern browsers today. The result is much longer run times than anything we've seen thus far, and a very CPU heavy benchmark:

Mozilla Kraken Benchmark

The standings don't change much here. The iPhone 4S is left in the dust by the iPhone 5, which steps ahead of the latest NVIDIA/Qualcomm based Android devices. The Apple advantage here is just over 10%. Once again, Intel's Atom Z2460 pulls ahead with the clear lead.

In our iPhone 5 Performance Preview we looked at Google's V8 javascript test as an alternative to SunSpider. The more data points the merrier:

Google V8 Benchmark - Version 7

Here the iPhone 5 manages to hold onto its second place position, but just barely. Once more, the Atom based RAZR i maintains the performance lead.

Google's Octane benchmark includes all 8 of the V8 tests but adds 5 new ones including a PDF reader, 3D bullet physics engine and portable 3D game console emulator all built in javascript.

Google Octane Benchmark v1

The 5 pulls ahead of the HTC One X here and maintains a healthy 31% lead, but once again falls short of the RAZR i.

We of course included our SunSpider and BrowserMark tests, both of which show the iPhone 5 very favorably:

SunSpider Javascript Benchmark 0.9.1 - Stock Browser


Performance obviously depends on workload, but it's clear the iPhone 5 is a big step forward from the 4S and tends to outperform the latest ARM based Android smartphones. As the rest of the ARM based SoC players move to Cortex A15 designs they should be able to deliver faster devices in the first half of 2013.

Intel's current position when it comes to CPU performance is interesting. A move to a dual-core design could be enough to remain performance competitive with 2013 ARM based SoCs. Remembering that Atom is a 5 year old CPU core that performs at the level of a 10 year old mainstream notebook CPU puts all of this progress in perspective. Intel's biggest issue going forward (other than getting Atom into more tier 1 phone designs) is going to be improving GPU performance. Luckily it seems as if it has the roadmap to do just that with the Atom Z2580.

Six Generations of iPhones: Performance Compared GPU Analysis/Performance


View All Comments

  • Calista - Sunday, October 21, 2012 - link

    English is not my native language (as I'm sure you have noticed) and so the flow in the language is far from flawless. But I still believe my opinions are valid and that the review was too long-winded. Reply
  • Teknobug - Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - link

    I live in a big city and I don't know a single person that went and got the iPhone 5, most are happy with the iPhone 4 or whatever phone they're using, I don't see what's so great about the iPhone 5 other than it being built better than the iPhone 4's double sided glass structure (I've seen people drop their's on the train or sidewalk and it shattering on both sides!).

    And what now? iPad mini? I thought Apple wasn't interested in the 6-7" tablet market, Steve Jobs said 9" is small enough. I know Apple tried a 6" tablet a decade ago but the market wasn't read for it back then.
  • name99 - Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - link

    You know what AnandTech REALLY needs now?
    A comment moderation system like Ars Technica, so that low-content comments and commenters (like the above) can be suppressed.

    Teknobug is a PERFECT example of Ars' Troll Type #1: "Son of the "I don't even own a TV" guy: "

    This is the poster who thinks other people will find it interesting that he cares nothing about their discussion or their interests, and in fact judges himself as somehow morally superior as a result. The morphology of this on Ars Technica includes people popping into threads about Windows 8 to proclaim how they will never use Windows, people popping into threads about iOS 6 to proclaim that they never have and never will buy an Apple product, and people popping into Android related threads and claiming that they will never purchase "crappy plastic phones." In these cases, the posters have failed to understand that no one really cares what their personal disposition is on something, if they have nothing to add to the discussion.
  • ratte - Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - link

    yeah, my thoughts exactly. Reply
  • worldbfree4me - Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - link

    I finished reading the review a few moments ago. Kudos again for a very thorough review, however I do a have a few questions and points that I would like to ask and make.

    Am I wrong to say, Great Job on Apple finally catching up to the Android Pack in terms of overall performance? The GS3, HTC X debuted about 6 months ago yes?

    Have these benchmark scores from the competing phones been updated to reflect the latest OS updates from GOOG such as OS 4.1.X aka Jelly Bean?

    Clearly the LG Optimus G is a preview of the Nexus 4,complete with a modern GPU In Adreno 320 and 2GB ram. I think based on history, the Nexus 4 will again serve as a foundation for all future Androids to follow. But again, good Job on Apple finally catching up to Android with the caveat being, iOS only has to push its performance to a 4inch screen akin to a 1080p LCD monitor verses a true gamers 1440p LCD Home PC setup. Ciao
  • Zinthar - Thursday, October 18, 2012 - link

    Caught up and passed, actually (if you were actually reading the review). As far as graphics are concerned, no smartphone has yet to eclipse the 4S's 543MP2 other than, of course, the iPhone 5.

    I have no idea what you're going on about with the Adreno 320, because that only gets graphics performance up to about the level of the PowerVR SGX 543MP2. Please see Anand's preview:
  • yottabit - Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - link

    Anand, as a Mech-E, I think somewhere the anodization facts in this article got very wonky

    I didn't have time to read thoroughly but I saw something about the anodized layer equaling half the material thickness? The idea of having half a millimeter anodized is way off the mark

    Typically there are two types of anodizing I use: regular, and "hard coat anodize" which is much more expensive

    If the iPhone is scuffing then it's definitely using regular anodizing, and the thickness of that layer is likely much less than .001" or one thousandth of an inch. More on the order of a ten-thousandth of an inch, actually. The thickness of traditional anodizing is so negligible that in fact most engineers don't even need to compensate for it when designing parts.

    Hard-coat anodize is a much more expensive process and can only result in a few darker colors, whereas normal anodizing has a pretty wide spectrum. Hard-coat thicknesses can be substantial, in the range of .001" to .003". This usually must be compensated for in the design process. Hard coat anodize results in a much flatter looking finish than typical anodize, and is also pretty much immune to scratches of any sort.

    Aluminum oxide is actually a ceramic which is harder than steel. So having a sufficient thickness of anodize can pretty much guarantee it won't be scratched under normal operating conditions. However it's much cheaper and allows more colors to do a "regular" anodize

    When I heard about scuffgate I immediately thought one solution would be to have a hardcoat anodize, but it would probably be cost prohibitive, and would alter the appearance significantly
  • guy007 - Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - link

    A little late to the party with the review, the iPhone 6 is almost out now... Reply
  • jameskatt - Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - link

    Anand is pessimistic about Apple's ability to keep creating its own CPUs every year. But realize that the top two smartphone manufacturers (Apple and Samsung) are CRUSHING the competition. And BOTH create their own CPUs.

    Apple has ALWAYS created custom chips for its computers - except for a few years when Steve Jobs accidentally let their chip engineers go when they switched to Intel and Intel's motherboard designs.

    Apple SAVES a lot of money by designing its own chips because it doesn't have to pay the 3rd party profit on each chip.

    Apple PREVENTS Samsung from spying on its chip designs and giving the data to its own chip division to add to its own designs. This is a HUGE win given Samsung's copycat mentality.

    Apple can now always be a step ahead of the competition by designing its own chips. Realize that others will create copies of the ARM A15. But only Apple can greatly improve on the design. Apple, for example, greatly improved the memory subsystem on its own ARM chips. This is a huge weakness on otherARM chips. Apple can now custom design the power control as well - prolonging battery life even more. Etc. etc.
  • phillyry - Sunday, October 21, 2012 - link

    Good points re: copycat and profit margin savings.

    I've always been baffled by the fact that Apple outsources their part manufacturing to the competition. I know that Samsung is a huge OEM player but they are stealing Apple's ideas. They are doing a very good job of it and now improving on those ideas and techs, which is good for the consumer but still seems completely illogical to me from Apple's perspective. Must be the 20/20 hindsight kicking in again.

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