A modern smartphone or a vintage supercomputer: which is more powerful?

A modern smartphone or a vintage supercomputer: which is more powerful?
If you're the kind of person who enjoys watching popular science programs on TV, then you might have heard some of Dr. Michio Kaku's fascinating theories on what the future has in store for us. In this post, however, we'll take a quick trip back to the past, inspired by something that Kaku states in one of his recent books: "Today, your cell phone has more computer power than all of NASA back in 1969, when it placed two astronauts on the moon." Seems hard to believe, we know, but it is actually true – a hand-held apparatus on which we fling birds at pigs has greater computational capabilities than the arsenal of machines used for guiding crafts through outer space some 45 years ago.

Multiple IBM System/360 Model 75 mainframe computers, costing up to $3.5 million apiece all the while occupying tremendous amounts of space, were operational at NASA at the time. Each could perform several hundred thousand addition operations per second, and their total memory capacity was in the megabyte range. As for the 70-pound Apollo Guidance Computer, which the Apollo 11 Command Module had on board, it was a machine that had 64 kilobytes of memory and operated at 0.043MHz. In comparison, an iPhone 5s, which you can easily fit into any pocket, has a CPU running at speeds of up to 1.3GHz – enough to enable the execution of millions of calculations each second. And the iPhone's 1GB of RAM should well suffice for storing the 6 megabytes of code that NASA developed to monitor the status of its spacecrafts and astronauts in 1969.

Several years later, in 1975, a supercomputer named Cray-1 came around. It was a capable and awesome-looking piece of machinery that "flew" at a rate of 80MHz. While generally used for scientific projects, such as simulating the interaction of fluids, one of these bad boys helped render the CGI for the first Tron movie, released in 1982. But a Cray-1's raw computational power of 80 million floating-point operations per second (FLOPS) is laughable by today's standards; the graphics unit inside the iPhone 5s produces about 76.8 GFLOPS – nearly a thousand times more. And surely, the iPhone can render 3D graphics looking better than Tron's Lightcycle scene. On a related note, the Cray-2 supercomputer was released 10 years after the Cray-1 and was the world's fastest supercomputer until 1990. But even with a performance of up to 1.9 GFLOPS, the liquid-cooled, 200-kilowatt machine still ranks behind the Apple iPhone, at least when it comes to GFLOPS ratings.

Deep Blue is another supercomputer that you might have heard of. It is the machine best known for winning against world chess champion Garry Kasparov with a score of 2:1 in a 6-game match. That happened on May 11, 1997, when Deep Blue was the 259th most powerful computer in the world. It boasted a performance figure of 11.38 GFLOPS and could evaluate 200 million positions on the chessboard each second (although still not good enough to run Crysis, we suppose). Today, some 17 years later, the ARM Mali-T628MP6 GPU inside the Exynos-based Samsung Galaxy S5 outputs 142 GFLOPS. And the 192-core GPU on the Tegra K1 SoC produces an even more impressive peak of 364 GFLOPS. Sure, these might not be superior to Deep Blue when it comes to playing chess, but in terms of brute, number-crunching power, these mobile graphics processors stand stronger.

So yeah, technology is definitely advancing, and it is doing so at a rapid pace. What takes a supercomputer to calculate today will most likely be a piece of cake for the smartphones (or whatever they evolve into) that we'll be using in 2020, just like today's smartphones have the processing potential of a vintage supercomputer. What we'll be investing this computational power into, however, is a whole different topic. Feel free to share your predictions down in the comments!

references: Computer Weekly, Cray-1 (Wikipedia), DigiBarn, Deep Blue (Wikipedia), Tom's Hardware

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37 Comments

1. PapaSmurf

Posts: 10457; Member since: May 14, 2012

Hmmm. Interesting read.

2. AfterShock

Posts: 4146; Member since: Nov 02, 2012

Good piece PA!

27. Saamic

Posts: 119; Member since: Feb 20, 2012

Yeah I agree, I definitely would like to see more articles similar to this one

28. sgodsell

Posts: 7186; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

I have been telling people that smart phones today are even faster then a number of computers and laptops from even just 10 years ago. Think about it ram in computers were only just starting to come out with ddr2. A number of other computers were still using ddr-333 or ddr-400. In today's flagship smart phones, a number of them are using ddr3 now. Even some using ddr3 1066 clock speeds. Some people who get phablets have even started to not bother using a tablet any more, because the phablet fulfills the users needs completely. Not to mention more and more apps mean the smart phones are even replacing some users computer needs. This trend is only going to grow.

3. apple4never

Posts: 1064; Member since: May 08, 2013

time to plug my z2 into a rocket and go to mars XD

24. tech2

Posts: 3487; Member since: Oct 26, 2012

Just make sure the rocket doesn't overheats like the Z2. J/k

25. apple4never

Posts: 1064; Member since: May 08, 2013

lol in space i think it should stay cool enough, now i probably shouldn't record 4k with my rocket ;)

29. alpinejason

Posts: 262; Member since: Sep 06, 2011

damn thats cold

31. cttan456

Posts: 62; Member since: Mar 22, 2012

The Z2 only overheats while recording 4K. Can you name me a phone that doesn't? At least Z2 gived you this option, Most other phones don't. Would you prefer car that is speed limited for your safety or a car that lets you push it as fast as it can go?

32. apple4never

Posts: 1064; Member since: May 08, 2013

depends what you need the car for

4. Reeyawn

Posts: 66; Member since: Apr 21, 2013

Nice article. Interesting

5. Duketytz

Posts: 534; Member since: Nov 28, 2013

Technological Singularity for the win! And we will probably see Skint for real (Google)

6. chocowii

Posts: 478; Member since: Jan 30, 2014

This article has so many numbers my nose bleed after I read it lol! :-D

7. HildyJ

Posts: 338; Member since: Aug 11, 2012

The past and future of hardware are are linked to Moore's Law. Of course we will have more computing power running more efficiently accessing larger databases. The key is software. If someone could compile Deep Blue's chess software to run on a Tegra, it would run faster but it wouldn't be any more intelligent. For that you would have to write better software. Most of your computing power goes towards determining the color and intensity of each of your phone's pixels every fraction of a second. I, for one, would much rather Google Now (or Cortana or Siri) used a significantly greater percentage of that power to help me with my life. Start with a more reliable voice recognition system and add the situational decision making that allowed Deep Blue to win.

8. Dandroid15

Posts: 8; Member since: Jul 02, 2012

Since when did we "fling pigs at birds" ?

9. aditya.k

Posts: 496; Member since: Mar 10, 2013

Was thinking the same! LOL!

10. apple4never

Posts: 1064; Member since: May 08, 2013

that was my first thought then i figured it was a stupid american game whiny teenagers probably play

11. Miracles

Posts: 560; Member since: Aug 31, 2013

Probably meant fling birds at pigs...aka Angry Birds

14. Nick_T

Posts: 184; Member since: May 27, 2011

Oops, my bad. Thanks for pointing this out!

35. WahyuWisnu

Posts: 1001; Member since: May 29, 2014

@Nick What would be more interesting to me is to know what power the current smartphone (smartdragon 200, smartdragon 400, smartdragon 600, smartdragon 800, tegra 2, tegra 3, tegra 4, exynos, mediatek) has compared to normal computer CPU such as 286, 386, 486, pentium, pentium mmx, pentium 2, pentium 3, pentium 4, atom, ....

12. fzacek

Posts: 2486; Member since: Jan 26, 2014

I don't think technology is evolving that quickly anymore. It will definitely not stop improving any time soon, but the rate at which it does so seems to be slowing down...

13. Antonyjoseph

Posts: 217; Member since: Apr 06, 2013

Why is the author obsessed with iphone only while comparing, while there are phones with better specs than the iphone.

15. Lalit_Luis

Posts: 4; Member since: Jun 14, 2014

A good read. The first thing that i thought after reading it through was.. Why the heck does Nasa not go back to moon with so much tech available now..? Nasa says it's very risky to do manned space flight to the moon right now. So, how the heck did they do it back then..? Hoax maybe..! Alien threat maybe..! Coming back to the article, Thanks for showing the leap of technology. Hope to see more comparative articles like this one.

20. refillable

Posts: 1071; Member since: Mar 10, 2014

Lol about the Moon... If you flash back to the Cold War of the 1960s I wouldn't deny your statement, in fact I would agree more than I would deny.

30. techloverNYC

Posts: 601; Member since: Nov 20, 2012

Transformer 3 dark side of the moon is what your comment about the moon reminded me of lol

16. zain1986

Posts: 7; Member since: Feb 17, 2014

S5 is faster than vintage supercomputer but still cant run android properly

17. RebelwithoutaClue unregistered

Yes it can, just not Android with Touchwhiz ;)

18. refillable

Posts: 1071; Member since: Mar 10, 2014

It is not 'S5 can not run android properly', but it's actually 'touchwiz can not be ran in any hardware'.

19. ImperialDynamics

Posts: 84; Member since: Nov 30, 2012

and you just had to mention the iToy twice

21. shahrooz

Posts: 792; Member since: Sep 17, 2013

It would be nice to mention today's fastet super computer in the article too, here you go: "China's Tianhe-2 supercomputer is the fastest in the world at 33.86 petaFLOPS" nice read PA, thank you.

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