The competition is heating up in the market for smartphones and other mobile devices. Literally. As competitors try to leap-frog each other in performance we're seeing a repeat of the desktop computer's Megahertz arms race, only this time the palm of your hand. You might want to put on some oven mitts.
The story so far:
- January 2007: Apple introduced the iPhone and iPhone touch, running a Samsung ARM11 processor at 412MHz.
- September 2008: Apple bumped the speed of the iPod Touch to 532MHz.
- September 2008: T-Mobile announced the G1 (also known as the HTC Dream), running an Qualcomm ARM11 processor at 528 MHz. The HTC Magic uses the same processor.
- January 2009: Palm announced the Pre, which features a TI ARM Cortex A8 processor at 600MHz.
- June 2009: Apple struck back with the iPhone 3G S, running a Samsung ARM Cortex A8 processor at 600MHz.
- June 2009: Samsung announced the Jet, which it claims is the "fastest full touch handset on the market today". It is clocked at 800MHz, and is probably based on the Samsung ARM Cortex A8.
Continue reading: Megahertz madness >
The Megahertz figure tells you how many cycles per second the CPU can run. The ARM11 chip can issue one machine instruction per cycle, so a 500MHz ARM11 can run at most 500 million instructions per second. The ARM Cortex A8 can issue up to 2 instructions per cycle, making it theoretically twice as fast as the ARM11 at the same clock speed. Other architectural changes improve further on that.
Of course, there is a down side to this race. Faster processors mean more heat and more power drain, resulting in lower battery life. However this effect is mitigated by shrinking die sizes, smarter power management, and bigger batteries, which is why the battery in the iPhone 3GS actually lasts longer than the one in the older 3G.
For developers, the ever-increasing capabilities of mobile devices makes programming them more and more like desktop and server computers. But someone once said software is like a gas that expands to fill all available hardware. Faster processors won't necessarily mean everything will run faster for the users. If you've compared running Word 2007 on Vista with, say, WordPerfect on DOS you know what I mean.
It is my hope that developers will hold the line on functionality and bloat, concentrating on essential features that translate well to the small screen. Only then can users see the benefit of longer battery life and snappier performance as the hardware technology marches on.