Most cellphones today are pretty damn powerful, when you pit them against PCs. Pound for pound, a smartphone can rival a PC for performance and graphics. So, is a smartphone a computer?
It came to me at around 2am. My phone started chirping away at the side of me, and apparently I had not visited my drag racing game for a few days, so I should check in and upgrade my car. Firstly: why did I need that information at 2am? But it got me thinking – the graphics on that game are outstanding, and I can pause that game, check my emails, go read a PDF I downloaded, and check the Google Analytics of TechLater.com at the same time.
So by 3am I was already deep thinking the whole smartphone vs PC thing. I likened it to a flea. If a flea was human-size, it could leap to the moon. If you had the same spec in a PC (except used full size graphics, memory and processor) you’d be able to play some good games, and also multitask with MS Word, Excel and other stuff that is inherently power hungry at scale. Ever had a ten sheet spreadsheet open with charts and pivot tables? You can almost hear your processor crunch.
So, without the flea analogy – which I realize is a 3am analogy – I woke up the next morning and decided to see what the internet said about this question.
Why do smartphones rival PC specs?
Let’s take a look at memory first.
In a smartphone, you can expect 8GB of RAM for your apps to use and abuse. In a PC, 8GB of RAM is fairly common, but gamers use 16GB or 32GB RAM as standard.
The key thing here is the amount of throughput that memory can achieve, and latency. Imagine you have to type out a sentence, but you cannot read it until you complete the sentence. Cellphone and smartphone RAM has lower throughput and latency. This is the equivalent of you typing with one hand instead of two. It is going to take longer (latency) before you can actually read the text at the end, too.
Clock Speed and Clock Cycles
Next up is processor speed. Let’s imagine we want to fill a bucket using a water pipe that is 3-inches in diameter. We’ll call this the clock speed. Attached to the pipe is a water pump that can pump a gallon of water every second. We will call that the clock cycle. The water represents data, here, in case you were wondering.
The 3-inch diameter pipe can withstand really high speeds of water, so we don’t need to change that. Obviously a wider diameter pipe would be good, but we only have so much money to buy pipe.
So we can improve the clock cycle. What we need to do is have a higher clock speed – more water being pumped per second.
In a smartphone, the 3ghz processors run at slower clock cycles than PC RAM. So even though you will see a smartphone with 3ghz, and a PC at 1ghz, the actual clock cycle speed is slower in the phone. This is referred to as the megahertz myth.
All in the build…
The build of a smartphone in comparison to a PC is much different, too. Mobile phone components are custom built, which means manufacturers don’t have to adhere to strict connector or wiring standards. They can build it how they want to get the performance they want.
SSD, for example, is usually a chip that is soldered directly to the motherboard. It may even be combined in a custom chip with other functions (such as bluetooth).
When we take into consideration all of the cooling that larger components need, and thermal issues, we see that a mobile phone will overheat much quicker than a PC, and the performance becomes absolutely crap.
Conclusions and Bad Analogies
In conclusion, it would seem that although on the face of it, mobile phones have alarmingly high specs, you would not get the full benefit of the RAM or the processor due to the architecture & hardware limitations. It’s just like trying to pick up a brick with a drone, without changing the size of the drone.
To pick up the brick, you need bigger rotors. You need a more powerful motor for these. So you upgrade the battery. Now the battery is too heavy for the rotors, so you need bigger rotors. But now you need a better motor. And a bigger battery. It would go on ad infinitum, because at some point you just have to say – I just need a bigger drone.
So is a smartphone a computer?
Yes and no.
TLDR: Mobile phones are meant to be small, so the performance reaches a peak as far as thermal performance and the amount of space for the components.
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