The iPad 2: Your Personal Supercomputer

Does it fascinate you to know that your humble iPad 2 would have beaten (and been) the most powerful supercomputer in 1985?

A recent article in the New York Times reports on the tests run by Dr. Dongarra and his research group, keepers of the TOP500 list of the worlds fastest supercomputers.

Besides sheer awe at the pace of technological development, in my mind it raises several interesting questions. At what point does increasing computing power cease to make a difference, is there a limit to the usefulness of sheer processing power?

In light of the exponential pace of development, what does the future look like for the computer in the palm of our hands?

Faster and Faster

One of the first interesting things to come from the report is how much faster the iPad 2 is than the original iPad in the Linpack benchmarks. Dr. Dongarra’s research team found that the iPad 2 is up to ten times faster than its precursor!

This is despite only running the benchmark on one of the iPad’s two processing cores.

This dramatic increase in pace is attributed to design changes implemented by Apple in the new version of the tablet. In certainly makes you wonder just how fast the so called iPhone 5 will be if Apple do what many are predicting and use the A5 chip (the same chip as in the iPad 2). The sheer computing power of supercomputers of the past could fit snugly in your pocket…

The A5 Chip

Another fascinating thing to come out of the tests is that, even with the thundering speed of technological developments in the 1990s, the iPad 2 would have remained on the list of the worlds fastest supercomputers (the TOP500) until 1994.

Beyond the Numbers

For those for whom the word teraflops sounds like something from a bad sci-fi movie, I have a couple of interesting things to help put this comparison in context.

Cray 2, the fastest supercomputer from 1985 through to 1990, was about the size of a large washing machine and was cooled by liquid immersion. The iPad 2 fits comfortably in your hands and is cooled by…

The Cray 2 Supercomputer

air.

Obviously there have been many huge advancements in technology since the late ’80s, but I’m certainly glad that my iPad doesn’t need to take regular baths to cool it down – it would be hugely inconvenient to have to dip it in the middle of a film.

Using a Supercomputer

While the power of supercomputers may sound impressive, in reality it would be a little wearing to own one. Their size and severe lack of practical functionality for anything other than expansive scientific modelling would make them virtually useless for the majority of the populace.

The Tianhe-1A - The World's Fastest Supercomputer

In many ways the iPad is a more truly amazing device. This is, in my humble opinion, because of the way it uses its power and the beauty of its design. It does an innumerable list of things very very well.

While more power is exciting and useful to a point, the future of ‘personal’ computing will be in smarter computing, versatile devices with intuitive interfaces. While I believe the processing capabilities will steadily increase with each new iteration of the iPad, this has already ceased to be the defining feature.

Your Thoughts

It’s worth mentioning that I wouldn’t mind if future iterations of the iPad did allow for incredible data processing and modelling, I would like to run some of my own climate simulations, as the weather man never does get it very right – it can’t be that hard.

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter – simply post a comment below! Will the next iPad feature a vastly more powerful processor? Is there a limit to useful user computing power? Will scientists of the future be using iPads?


  • Stephen

    Rather like work expanding to fill the time available, every time computer power increases the amount of work it is given to do increases. So although things speed up it’s not as much as raw figures would suggest.

    However, in the fairly near future as we move ever closer to world of decreased energy availability, we will start to see these endless leaps getting smaller and smaller until the very idea of having a working computer of your own will seem incredible again. Just like it did only 40 years ago.

    • Amar Sood

      I would like to point out that your closing thoughts are deeply unlikely – when the need is great, we’ll pull through… :)

      (hopefully with fusion?)

  • VicDiesel

    It’s quite remarkable how powerful machines are these days. Of course the linpack benchmark is only one way to measure performance, and it’s neither relevant to graphics or to sound. My (somewhat informed) guess would be that the A5 is rather less powerful than the Cray2 when it comes to DSP.

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