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Checking the Chips: iPhone 3G S

inside iphone 3gs metueIt usually takes a few days or weeks after a product hits the store shelves before there is a public tear-down and reports about its innards (and manufacturing costs).    Jumping the gun, and working off “insider sources” instead of an actual look inside, several sites began sketching out the details and performance specs on the new iPhone 3G S internals this week. 

Many of the details have been rumored for a while and are probably accurate but it’ll be at least a few weeks before any actual dissection of the phone can confirm or debunk them. Still, for those looking for early insight into where things are, or where they might be going, here some of the gist from the hardware reports:

First, as with the prior phones, Apple’s presumed to be relying on a system on a chip (SoC) configuration from Samsung to do the metaphorical heavy lifting inside the phone. (The SoC combines the CPU, GPU and memory)   The CPU in the configuration is said to be an ARM Cortex A8 processor.  This chip is expected to step up clock speed from the prior 3G phone to a speed of 600MHz (up from 412MHz).  It is able to parallel process two RISC instructions and is loaded with greater cache memory potential.

From ARM’s product data sheet (PDF), the company says “the Cortex A8 processor is the highest performance, most power-efficient processor ever developed by ARM.”   The related NEON media engine, “is able to process demanding applications such as VGA H.264 30fps video decode with a clock frequency as low as 400MHz.“

The combination of memory and processing power, should deliver the improved speeds Apple announced when it revealed the phone.  There is a possibility the battery life could suffer a little in consequence, but those with greater chip knowledge, suggest that, while the new phone will require more power when running at its peak, it will need to run at that level for far shorter times to accomplish the same tasks.  Such shorter bursts, they suggest, will draw less power in sum (when compared to longer processing times on the prior model) and because of that, and other optimization, the net battery life for the phone should be improved. 

Also improved, or expected to be, is the phone’s graphics performance.   Apple is an investor in Imagination Technologies and has used the company’s PowerVR graphics chips (GPU) in prior models. The 3G S is said to continue that tradition but it is believed to improve the component to the newest issue, jumping up from the MBX-Lite to a new fifth generation chip, the SGX.    The SGX not only runs at a faster processing clip, its capable of rendering far more pixels per second.  That could prove substantial for gaming and video related applications.

AnandTech, in one of the more detailed and comprehensive reports on the expected specs, says the GPU will render anywhere from 3.5 to 7 times more triangles per second (than the iPhone 3G) depending on the speed its running.  In pixels per second, the same report speculates the SGX chip will generate 125M (@100MHz) to 250M (@200MHz) compared to the 100M generated from the chip inside the iPhone 3G.  At peak levels (and depending on configuration), Imagination’s product documents suggest the performance results could be even higher. 

Depending on the application, these differences may not be fully noticed by users but they are potentially significant upgrades for developers.  They could substantially improve a mobile gaming experience, or alter the quality of any media display experience.

To quote from the AnandTech report, “The iPhone 3GS may be a mild upgrade from a consumer perspective, but what it’s going to enable is far from it…   Remember the performance gains we saw in the early days of 3D graphics on the PC?  We’re about to go through all of that once more in the mobile space.”

Apple’s not the only company making advances or pushing the smartphone envelope.  The Palm Pre runs a similar hardware configuration (AnandTech claims it’s the same ARM chip in the two phones), and future Android products are likely to be similarly endowed.  

The potential for the end user may not be fully developed but the table is being set for some interesting advancements.  The coming year or two could be very interesting for the mobile (and mobile gaming) space.   

Stay tuned for the official teardown reports after the iPhone 3G S hits retail later this month.

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