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

Posted: , by Nick T.

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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.

Apollo Guidance Computer, 0.043MHz clock speed

Apollo Guidance Computer, 0.043MHz clock speed

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.

The Cray-1 supercomputer ran at 80MHz

The Cray-1 supercomputer ran at 80MHz

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 – still not quite as good as a smartphone

Deep Blue – still not quite as good as a smartphone

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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posted on 14 Jun 2014, 19:39 5

1. PapaSmurf (Posts: 10457; Member since: 14 May 2012)

Hmmm. Interesting read.

posted on 14 Jun 2014, 19:54 3

2. AfterShock (Posts: 3698; Member since: 02 Nov 2012)

Good piece PA!

posted on 15 Jun 2014, 15:47 1

27. Saamic (Posts: 119; Member since: 20 Feb 2012)

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

posted on 15 Jun 2014, 18:38

28. sgodsell (Posts: 4855; Member since: 16 Mar 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.

posted on 14 Jun 2014, 19:54 8

3. apple4never (Posts: 1064; Member since: 08 May 2013)

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

posted on 15 Jun 2014, 09:56 3

24. tech2 (Posts: 3487; Member since: 26 Oct 2012)

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

posted on 15 Jun 2014, 10:54 2

25. apple4never (Posts: 1064; Member since: 08 May 2013)

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

posted on 15 Jun 2014, 22:13

29. alpinejason (Posts: 262; Member since: 06 Sep 2011)

damn thats cold

posted on 15 Jun 2014, 23:47

31. cttan456 (Posts: 62; Member since: 22 Mar 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?

posted on 16 Jun 2014, 05:09

32. apple4never (Posts: 1064; Member since: 08 May 2013)

depends what you need the car for

posted on 14 Jun 2014, 20:00

4. Reeyawn (Posts: 66; Member since: 21 Apr 2013)

Nice article. Interesting

posted on 14 Jun 2014, 20:02

5. Duketytz (Posts: 534; Member since: 28 Nov 2013)

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

posted on 14 Jun 2014, 20:25 1

6. chocowii (Posts: 470; Member since: 30 Jan 2014)

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

posted on 14 Jun 2014, 20:35 3

7. HildyJ (Posts: 305; Member since: 11 Aug 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.

posted on 14 Jun 2014, 21:28 5

8. Dandroid15 (Posts: 8; Member since: 02 Jul 2012)

Since when did we "fling pigs at birds" ?

posted on 14 Jun 2014, 21:39 2

9. aditya.k (Posts: 496; Member since: 10 Mar 2013)

Was thinking the same! LOL!

posted on 14 Jun 2014, 21:55 1

10. apple4never (Posts: 1064; Member since: 08 May 2013)

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

posted on 14 Jun 2014, 22:03 1

11. Miracles (Posts: 560; Member since: 31 Aug 2013)

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

posted on 15 Jun 2014, 02:09 1

14. Nick_T (Posts: 177; Member since: 27 May 2011)

Oops, my bad. Thanks for pointing this out!

posted on 17 Jun 2014, 13:01

35. WahyuWisnu (Posts: 1001; Member since: 29 May 2014)


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, ....

posted on 14 Jun 2014, 22:17 2

12. fzacek (Posts: 2486; Member since: 26 Jan 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...

posted on 14 Jun 2014, 23:53 4

13. Antonyjoseph (Posts: 217; Member since: 06 Apr 2013)

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

posted on 15 Jun 2014, 03:40

15. Lalit_Luis (Posts: 4; Member since: 14 Jun 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.

posted on 15 Jun 2014, 07:07

20. refillable (Posts: 1070; Member since: 10 Mar 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.

posted on 15 Jun 2014, 23:11

30. techloverNYC (Posts: 601; Member since: 20 Nov 2012)

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

posted on 15 Jun 2014, 03:43

16. zain1986 (Posts: 7; Member since: 17 Feb 2014)

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

posted on 15 Jun 2014, 04:56 6

17. RebelwithoutaClue (Posts: 3575; Member since: 05 Apr 2013)

Yes it can, just not Android with Touchwhiz ;)

posted on 15 Jun 2014, 07:05

18. refillable (Posts: 1070; Member since: 10 Mar 2014)

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

posted on 15 Jun 2014, 07:07

19. ImperialDynamics (Posts: 53; Member since: 30 Nov 2012)

and you just had to mention the iToy twice

posted on 15 Jun 2014, 07:11 2

21. shahrooz (Posts: 785; Member since: 17 Sep 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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