[ NOTE: The data in this archived post refers to the iPhone 3G and 2G iPod touch and earlier. ]

With the launch of the iTunes App Store and the arrival of "iPhone 2.0" just days away, the buzz surrounding the many games that will make their debut when the store goes live is growing louder and louder.  The previews we've seen over the past few months leave no room for doubt that the iPhone is an extremely capable gaming device and that we will see some very solid titles available on launch day.  Given this, we thought it a particularly good time to have a look at just what makes the iPhone thusly capable.

There has been much coverage of the rich Software Development Kit (SDK) Apple has made available, at no cost, to developers.  The Cocoa programming environment with its collection of robust frameworks and APIs--not the least of which is OpenGL ES--gives developers an elegant and powerful way to interact with the iPhone hardware.  Less has been said, however, about the hardware itself.  What gear gives the iPhone its game?

The iPhone's core system-on-a-chip (SoC) hardware is a Samsung S5L8900.  Being a SoC, the device consists of various discrete components that have been integrated into a single device in order to provide a wide range of functionality in a small, low-cost package.  Two components are of particular importance in quantifying such a device's ability to function as a game platform: the processor core and the graphics hardware.

The Samsung chipset at the heart of the iPhone utilizes a 32-bit RISC ARM processing core, the ARM1176JZ(F)-S v1.0.  The ARM device is capable of running at 620MHz, but Apple has downclocked it to 412MHz, presumably in the interest of extending battery life.  (Apple has, at least once in the past, adjusted the clockspeed of both the processor and the system bus via firmware update.)  Unlike the original iPhone, the 3G iPhone and the original iPod touch, the second-generation iPod touch features an ARM1176 v4.0 core running at 532MHz.

Some notable features of the ARM processor in the iPhone:

  • High performance integer processor:
    • 8-stage integer pipeline delivers high clock frequency
    • Separate load-store and arithmetic pipelines
    • Branch Prediction and Return Stack
    • Up to 675 Dhrystone 2.1 MIPS in 0.13u process
  • High performance memory system
    • Supports 4-64k cache sizes
    • Optional tightly coupled memories with DMA for multi-media applications
    • Quad-ported AMBA 3 AXI bus interface speeds instruction and data access
    • ARMv6 memory system architecture accelerates OS context-switch
  • Vector Floating Point coprocessor for powerful acceleration of embedded 3D-graphics

The Samsung SoC also features an implementation of Imagination Technologies' PowerVR MBX Lite 3D accelerator, likely running at the iPhone's bus speed of 103MHz.  This fourth-generation PowerVR chipset is basically an evolution of the second-generation graphics hardware used in the Sega Dreamcast (an amazing console, to those unaware) and which, like its console predecessor, utilizes a unique tile-based rendering system.

Unique patent protected tiling technology enables on-chip processing of hidden surface removal (pixel perfect and submission order independent) and pixel blending, and enables deferred rendering, eliminating all unnecessary access to off-chip memory. The decoupling of geometry and vertex processing from the rasterisation process enables higher throughput while maximizing tolerance to system latencies. Advanced tiling and culling algorithms are implemented in hardware, which i combination with seamless scene complexity management and compression enable support for arbitrarily complex scenes in limited memory footprints with lowest memory bandwidth usage.

The MBX Lite is capable of providing fill rates exceeding 135 million pixels per second and a throughput of 1.7 million triangles per second, depending on configuration.

The MBX Lite in the iPhone is paired with the PowerVR VGP Lite vertex geometry processor which greatly reduces the burden of the main processor by taking on complex 3D vertex calculations.

The POWERVR Vertex Geometry Processor (VGP) is a high-performance, fully programmable floating-point SIMD coprocessor carefully matched to the requirements of 3D. Designed for optimal geometry processing (including transformation and lighting), the VGP offloads these highly compute-intensive tasks from the host CPU resulting in a significant reduction in power consumption. With an instruction set carefully designed to allow common geometry operations to be performed in a minimal number of instructions, the VGP is capable of four floating-point operations per clock.

The processing hardware sitting at the heart of both the iPhone and iPod touch makes them no slouch when it comes to pushing polygons to the screen.  As shown earlier in an iPod Hacks post, the iPhone compares rather favorably to the Sony PSP and Nintendo DS.

  • Sony PSP
    • Processor: MIPS CPU @ 222 or 333MHz (selectable)
    • Screen: 480x272 pixels
    • Input: D-pad, analog stick
  • Nintendo DS
    • Processor: two ARM CPUs (67MHz and 33MHz)
    • Screen: two 256x192 pixel screens
    • Input: D-pad, touch-screen
  • iPhone
    • Processor: ARM CPU @ 412MHz (532MHz in 2G iPod touch)
    • Screen: 480x320 pixels
    • Input: multitouch, accelerometer

The iPhone offers the most screen real estate and arguably the fastest processor of the lot.  But while Apple's device is dramatically more powerful than the DS for both graphics and number crunching, the PSP's graphics engine has substantially more polygon pushing power than the iPhone's MBX Lite + VGP Lite arrangement.  And while outclassed in this area of the PSP's particular strength, we look to the iPhone's unique combination of Wii (accelerometer) and DS (touchscreen) controls along with the unprecedentedly approachable App Store to make it every bit as significant a mobile games platform as Sony's offering, moving forward.

More source information:

[ Post updated on 11/23/2008 to reflect new information that has come to light ]

tag: iPhone specs

  • http://www.CraigKnowsThings.com Craig

    *waits patiently for friday*

  • Khush

    I could cry I want to see the App Store so badly!

  • dave

    Given that Flash on MacOS X is still significantly slower than the Window's version on the exact same hardware, it's not a big surprise that it won't work well on the iPhone.

    And unfortunately, I live in Canada and can't afford Roger's crazy expensive plans.

  • Mark

    No joypad. Playing games on a touchscreen is rubbish.

  • http://www.blakespot.com blakespot

    @dave: Apple has bigger plans than Flash for the iPhone and future, related devices.


  • http://www.blakespot.com blakespot
  • http://philnelson.name Phil Nelson

    Have to agree, gaming without a D-Pad is, thus far, a load of not-fun. There are some games out there that can be fun sans directional pad support, but they are way few and very far between. I'm hoping the launch of the app store brings new life, but I am not holding my breath.

  • Constable Odo

    Why the heck did Apple put a graphics processor into the iPhone that can't even beat some old PSP graphics processor. Seems like a step backwards. Now I understand why forums keep saying that the PSP can run circles around the iPhone when it comes to games. I know my PSP does some darn good graphics and plays videos well, too. The one thing the PSP really sucks at is rendering websites. Dammit, that thing is slooooooow pulling up pages over WiFi.

    I think the iControl would be a must for gaming on the iPhone. I don't care how cool tilting the iPhone seems. I don't want it. I want buttons. I really don't want to have to learn how to game all over again. No way you can play an automobile simulator that you need to shift using some tilt mechanism.

  • http://www.blakespot.com blakespot

    @Constable Odo: Sony designed the PSP (and not too long ago) as a dedicate gaming system. It's not a general purpose mobile computer. They expended many, many millions on R&D of a high performance graphics processor suitable for use in a battery operated, mobile computer.

    The iPhone, on the other hand, is a general purpose mobile communications device. Gaming was obviously in Apple's plan as evidenced by the powerful SoC they chose. I know of no general purpose SoC for a device of the iPhone's class that is more powerful. Part of its power is its graphics processor, which is no slouch. (Played any Dreamcast games lately?) But gaming was not Apple's primary concern. I think Apple made an excellent choice on the SoC they went with in the iPhone, given their design goals.

    Don't write it off. Look at the game demos that have been released. Look at Super Monkey Ball. It looks great. Similarly, compare the success of and titles available for the Wii. The PS3 and XBOX 360 are dramatically more powerful, but the Wii is on top. And the games are great. But the iPhone, unlike the Wii, actually has a higher resolution screen and a faster processor than the PSP or the DS. Compared to its peers, the iPhone is a more powerful gaming device than the Wii.

    And look at the DS. It's extremely successful. Compare it's hardware to the iPhone's chipset. It (the DS) doesn't approach the power of the iPhone for games.

    Apple knew what they were doing when they put together the iPhone.

  • Wolfgang

    I have to say, I am impressed with the potential gaming chops that seem to lie below the surface or our beloved little device.

    What leaves me confused though, is the dearth tangible announcements, screenshots and movies of real games from major developers and publishers. There seems to be much potential for the iPhone as a gaming platform, yet besides a couple of announcements and demonstrations, many of the games previewed so far, seem more like demos and experiments than fully completed games on the level that you see on the DS or PSP

    I have no doubt that EA and Sega are going to deliver those kind of full-game experiences, but outside of them I'm left wondering what will really be worth buying when the app store opens.

    I thought TouchArcade would be bubbling over daily with announcements, screenshots that would have everyone frothing at the mouth. But, outside of something enticing here and there, much of what I've seen has been underwhelming when compared to the iPhone's potential.

    I am banking on the notion that there is much going on behind the scenes at Apple, and at other developers/publishers that just has not been shared with us yet.

    Hearing that companies like Bioware are looking into development is really encouraging...I hope that only scratches the surface of what's going on behind the scenes.

  • http://www.blakespot.com blakespot

    NDA issues prior to 7/11 are holding many folks back. We've not necessarily reported all we've been exposed to, either...

  • reverie


    The problem from a game creator's point of view really is that the iPhone is lacking input methods. Fingertouch and tilt are just too limiting for a wide range of games.

    Another issue might be the the publishers will have to wait how big the market actually is. After all even the PSP, which is regarded as not such a big hit, is selling about 10 million units per year to dedicated gamers. The DS is selling around 30 million per year, again to people who buy the device only for gaming.

    The iPhone will sell around 10-15 million max this year and 30 million next year by the most optimistic forecasts, and it remains to be seen what percentage of these buyers will actually be interested in games at all. Might be just 20 % or 10 % of them buying games at least every now and then.

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  • Ken

    Those that are thinking you need physical buttons to mash in order to make a game playable are stuck in the 1980's.

    Ever play Zelda Phantom Hourglass on the DS? When I first got it I thought it was weird using a stylus to control the game. I really didn't think I'd play it that often. It only took a few tries and I ended up being hooked.

    The only bad part about the whole thing, I don't have any other games that you control that way. I'm patiently waiting for another.

    Please don't limit developers imagination because you can't shift your paradigm.

  • http://www.blakespot.com blakespot

    Well spoke, Ken. Well spoke.

  • G H

    The iPhone is lacking input methods? Are you joking. The D-Pad is basically four buttons with a hard plastic casing. Have you done any intense gaming with one lately? Your thumb will have blisters. The only reason the D-Pad is still around is for handhelds that can't use an analog stick for obvious portability/durability reasons. Good news, though. Accelerometers have all the functionality of an analog stick in addition to the ability to determine twist. If game developers are unwilling to figure out how to use the accelerometers effectively in their games, maybe it would be best if they would keep their uncreative games to other platforms. I am disappointed with how little Nintendo has pushed the Wiimote's accelerometer control, but I am sure somebody will release something in the near future that shows the rest of gaming community how to use it. As for touch control, there are many good examples of how to effectively use it in gaming already thanks to the DS. See the following games: Phantom Hourglass, Elite Beat Agents, The World Ends with You, Brain Age, and Kirby Canvas Curse. Don't forget that the iPhone also has the ability to use voice as an input method, which has proved effective in games like Nintendogs and Brain Age.

  • dimble

    Accelerometer - I'm sure that some interesting games will be created that take advantage of this feature of the iPhone. On the other hand, with the Wiimote you have a controller that is separate from the stationary screen. Having to control actions by tilting and rotating the screen you're viewing (or attempting to view as it tilts or rotates away from you) will necessarily have its limitations.

  • Michael

    I'm primarily a PC gamer and have a PSP for those long commutes. I'm always surprised by developers imagination and their ability to innovate.

    Gaming on the iphone won't be the same as gaming on the PSP (Go Crisis Core) but that does not mean it won't be fun.

    I'm really looking forward to it (and if it has spider solitaire the girl friend will be delighted)

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  • reverie


    Don't be too quick to judge my state of mind. I do all my gaming on the DS and the Wii, and I praise their innovative input methods. That's why I think it's a bit superficial to suggest that the iPhone is a Wii and DS combined. Case in point, Zelda DS runs with a stylus. It would be impossible with finger touch.

    G H,

    Tilting the screen is not the same as an analog stick because tilting compromises your view of the screen. Also, it's two handed vs. one handed (one handed being easier to learn and more flexible of you want to do other things). Also, it's a big motion that tires your arms.

    The adventure game Lair for the PS3 uses the tilting capability of the PS3 controller. Despite being a high profile game heavily promoted by Sony it flopped and was widely panned by the critics because tilt just doesn't work.

    And as I mentioned above, finger touch is not the same as style touch. Finger touch is less precise on a small screen and it's heavily blocking your view.

    It just shows hybris when you say that Nintendo is not creative enough to use the input methods the innovated on the Wii and DS and that iPhone developers should show Nintendo how it's done. This is where you cross the border into Apple fanboyism.

    The iPhone has issues regarding game controls and if you don't want to look like a fool in 6 months you should see both sides. Games without effective controls are not interactive. They're not fun.

  • reverie

    Sorry, I didn't want to come across so angrily. I've also realised that there is a counter example to LAIR--a game with excellent tilt controls, Mario Kart Wii. The viewing problem remains, though.

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  • George

    I think it is not so much an issue of whether the iphone is a better or not way to play games we have already played on the PSP and DS. I think it just holds amazing potential for games in general, not iPhone versions of games already on PSP and DS. Sure it would be hard to control games that would normally require a D-Pad. So make a game that doesnt require that mechanic and works better with tilt or touch.
    I mean look at the DS for heavens sake, the good and innovative games are nothing like stuff on the PSP, because they focus on using what is unique about the DS, like the touch screen. Similarly the best PSP games are ports of playstation games, because the PSP has good graphics but an otherwise mundane way of playing them.

    I think there is a good chance that the iPhone will see games that are different sorts of games than we have seen on other mobile platforms built around the input. Except for EA games.

    Personally I am hoping for game styles that would normally require a mouse *hopes for strategy games*

  • Blain

    The iPhone is ill suited for button mashing. I don't expect it to have many FPSes or Street-Fighter-style games. Sure, it's possible to section off part of the display for buttons, but I don't think that's optimal.

    We can see this already with what coverage has been leaked and what's on youtube, but expect iPhone games to look a lot different from PSP ones. First, because of UI. Second, because of being a phone.

    Because of the hands-on UI, games will be less of a TV that you have buttons controlling, but physical objects right there that you're directly touching and have some magical properties. Trism, for example. In these cases, the sight issue is partially mitigated that the fingers are rarely over one point long; offscreen, then on an element only for a second to move it into position, then offscreen again.

    Secondly, when the iphone gets a call and the user accepts it, or the user presses the big home button, the app quits. Period. Sure, it might get a second or two (Probably not even that- I could look it up, but it's NDAed) to save things, but that intense action can and must be put on hold at any time. This means expecting a lot of games that are short or at the very least easily interruptable. If you thought the Wii was casual-gamer oriented...

    Oddly or even ironically enough, that means while the iPhone is ill-suited for button-mashers, the button-mashers are equally ill-suited for the iPhone.

    @dave: What about the iPod touch, which will have the iPhone OS and apps, but Rogers can't ruin?

  • Eddy

    I was just thinking about a Z-Code interpreter that could use the accelerometer to trigger user assignable macros for various tasks. Instead of typing "go north" you would tilt the top back. Tilt left to go left, etc... Maybe a shake would describe your current location. Anything to save from typing repetitive phrases with the virtual keyboard, which I still have some issues with.

  • http://www.youtube.com/used/jake666jimmy James

    When you think about it, the 22 posts of anger I just read were completely pointless. Even though I am dead excited for Apple's AppStore, I do not plan on fighting over the results. I'll just buy myself a $50 iTunes Gift Card and play the damn games.

    Also, I am currently typing this from my iPod touch's keyboard, a superior input if you ask me. It works great for puzzle games and quizes, which are with no doubt fun.

    And last but not least, every single one of you are over looking the iPhone's better potential of buttons. Instead of lugging around the iControlPad, developers will just plop on a virtual anolog stick on a corner for the screen. It would not block your view, it would pnly make the platform better.

  • Hamranhansenhansen

    Over the next decade, every display in the world will add touch. The developers of iPhone games have some new territory to explore with multitouch. If you are unhappy with having to "learn" the touchscreen you might as well retire now.

    20 years from now it will be very hard to explain to a kid that there were such things as non-touchable displays. What would be the point?

    There was a shooter demonstrated at WWDC. You could fire by pressing anywhere on the display with any digit of any hand. Remember it is multitouch. There are also swipes and other gestures, and an array of buttons can be conjured at any time for a fighter cockpit or any kind of control system. You're going to feel much more a part of the game when you're touching it.

  • abu

    "omg no dpad" people: ROTFL.

    when I was a kid, I spent days on atari vcs, cbm 64 and coin-ops... and first time I saw a nes pad I thought it was a such a scum - how the hell you're supposed to play without a joystick?????

    you're just like me at 8 y.o. 😛

  • http://www.blakespot.com blakespot

    For the record, abu, I'm with you. Ever since I first saw a semblance of a D-pad on the Intellivision, I disliked it. Yea, I know it truly arrived w/ the NES but -- hey -- where did the digital joystick go??

    Let's keep an open mind, people.

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  • Mike

    While it is debatable if the iPhone is going to challenge the likes of the PSP, there is NO QUESTION it is LIGHTYEARS ahead of most other cell phone games that have been produced. The fact that I will be able to play ALL of the POPCAP games alone makes me very happy.

    I can see companies easily doing games like Geomitry Wars, Professor Clayton, Mutant Storm, or many of the Xbox Live Arcade games, or many of the classic side scrollers/shooters...

    The stuff on cell phones now, SUCKS in comparison. The iPhone is exciting just in its ability to trump these types of games. The fact that it will even come close to a PSP or DS is just icing on the cake!

  • http://www.blakespot.com blakespot

    @Mike, agreed. I purchased several retro games on the LG flip-phone I was using before iPhone. I was stunned at how archaic the process of getting to the "store", listing the titles, and making the purchase was, through the phone. And the resultant games were very unsatisfying renditions of the simple classics that were nearly impossible to control with the phone's buttons.

    The iTunes App Store is not anything resembling a "cell phone game store." It's iTunes for games, available anywhere. Thankfully. It's really the App Store more than the iPhone's hardware that will make the iPhone as a platform so rich a playfield for developers.

    Not to mention we're talking native, Cocoa apps running under OS X on a fast platform with hardware acceleration rather than some Java app designed to run on a great many different phones.

    Night and day.

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  • james braselton


  • barry shirr

    the arguments about input methods are a little premature - the trick is not to artificially shoe horn old games to work with new controls, but to design new games around the new controls. remember quake for the playstation ? absolute pants because the playstation doesnt have a mouse - yet still they wasted everyones time porting it.

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  • http://www.bluebugle.org/ Lenin VJ Nair

    That pipeline architecture shows how apple gets so much speed from a mere processor that is also underclocked. A good review indeed.

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