Today's cheapest iPhone vs the PalmPilot: 20 years of handheld computing

As we welcome the innovative iPhone X, it's worth noting that you can buy a new iPhone for less than the original PalmPilot. Even Apple's lowest-end device is hundreds of thousands of times more powerful than handhelds from 20 years ago.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

With all the interest in Apple's newest and most expensive iPhone, the iPhone X, it's important to remember that Apple also offers a powerful and capable entry-level device. The iPhone SE was introduced in 2016, and refreshed in 2017 with more storage options. It shares the Apple A9 processor with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.

The shirt-pocket sized iPhone SE may seem like a low-end phone, especially compared to the iPhone X. But let's travel back in time, and see how far shirt-pocket computing devices have come over the last 20 years.

Back before our phones did everything, computers sat on our desktops or in our briefcases. The idea of a pocket computing device was something of a dream, but until the mid-1990s, it was too difficult to engineer into something a mainstream consumer could afford to buy.

Sure, some devices were built, but they were either way too expensive, way too big, or way too difficult to use. The Apple Newton is a case in point.

Then came Palm. When Palm started, it was an offshoot project of the US Robotics modem company. Their first device was the Pilot 1000. That name would change quickly to PalmPilot, and then just Palm, because the makers of Pilot pens thought there might be some confusion between ink pens and PDA styli.

PDA. There's an acronym we don't hear anymore. It means personal digital assistant, and it was coined way before Siri, Alexa, or Cortana were around to personally assist us in our digital needs. PDA back then meant a small device where you could keep your appointments, address book, some notes, and maybe do a few calculator calculations.

PDAs weren't envisioned as smartphones. They were trying to eliminate DayTimers and the other organizer notebooks many of us lugged around to keep track of our daily activities. For my wife -- way before she became my wife -- the appeal of the Palm handheld wasn't its electronic gimmickry. It was that it was much smaller and lighter than her calendar, giving her purse more room and less weight.

That Pilot 1000 was bare bones, especially by today's standards. It had a 160x160 pixel display. There was no keyboard, neither on-screen nor BlackBerry-style. You entered information into the device by learning a new way to write, called Graffiti. This was a gesture language entered with a stylus where each letter was designed to be clearly distinct from every other. It wasn't hard to learn, but it wasn't instant, either.

Even so, the Palm devices found a sweet spot, both in terms of price and size. They fit in a shirt pocket, they didn't weigh down purses, and they were comparatively inexpensive.

You couldn't use them to make phone calls, browse the internet, or send text messages. They didn't have Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or NFC. It wasn't until years later that the Palm Treo became one of the first smartphones. But in the early days, it was all about the big four: calendar, contacts, notes, and calculator. And that was enough.

The original Pilot 1000 came out in 1996. Interest was high, but it wasn't until the PalmPilot Personal and PalmPilot Professional devices came out in March of 1997 that PalmPilots became mainstream consumer hits. Since the 1997 PalmPilots were introduced exactly 20 years before the current iPhone SE, we'll use them as our basis of comparison.

Let's start with price. When they launched, the PalmPilot Personal sold for $299, while the Professional sold for $399. The current iPhone SE starts right in the middle of those two. It's available now for $349.

But, of course, 20 years have passed. Accounting for inflation, that PalmPilot Personal would cost $459 in today's dollars. The Professional version would be $613 in today's money. So the devices of that time cost quite a bit more, in terms of real purchasing power.

Computers that fit in the palm of your hand

But that's only part of the story. For almost twice the cost of the iPhone SE, the capabilities of those early PalmPilots were positively prehsitoric.

The difference between the PalmPilot Personal and the Professional was internal storage. The basic model came with 512K of RAM, while the Professional shipped with a whopping one megabyte. By contrast, the $349 model of the iPhone SE ships with 32 gigabytes.

That's 512,000 times more storage, compared to lower-end Personal and 256,000 times more storage than the PalmPilot Professional. Think about that for a minute. That's insane.

Let's move on to the display. The PalmPilot screen (for both models) was a 160x160 monochrome display. By contrast, the iPhone SE has a 1,136x640 full color display with an sRGB color space, representing 32-bits per pixel. Just accounting for dots on screen, the PalmPilots had 25,600 dots, while the iPhone SE has 727,040 dots -- or 29 times more pixels.

But that's just dots. Once you realize that each iPhone SE pixel can represent 16.7 million colors (and that's not counting special attributes like transparency), compared to just black and white for the PalmPilots, the difference becomes more profound.

The PalmPilots could represent roughly 50,000 bits of information on a screen, compared to the iPhone SE's 16.7 million times 727 thousand dots. In other words, the current iPhone SE screen can represent 242,818,000 times more visual information.

How about processor speed? The PalmPilots used a 16Mhz Motorola 68328 processor. That old Freescale DragonBall was a 32-bit classic. By contrast, the Apple A9, a 64-bit processor, runs at 1.85 Ghz. Of course, the architecture of the two are vastly different. The ARM device is a RISC-based machine, with dual cores, tons more cache, and, of course, it was designed specifically to handle the iPhone's needs.

Even though we're definitely not looking at an apples-to-apples comparison, the raw processor speed specs put the SE at more than 100 times greater. Given how well-tuned the Apple processors are to the needs of iOS, if it were possible to benchmark the PalmPilots against the iPhone, you'd most likely see a thousand-fold (or even more) performance difference between the devices.

Photos: 10 years of Palm handhelds

Of course, the iPhone offers so much more than the PalmPilots of the time. Let's not forget it's got a phone, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Touch ID, two cameras, the ability to record 4K video, and more.

The bottom line is pretty amazing. As exciting as the iPhone X is, even the most basic, least expensive iPhone is, quite literally, hundreds of thousands times more powerful than what we were able to buy 20 years ago, and it's cheaper.

The iPhone has been out for just over 10 years, and we know how far its come. What do you think our mobile technology will be like 20 years from now? If you've got some pithy prognostications, go ahead and let us know in the TalkBacks below. Stylus and Graffiti not required.

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