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Communications

Apple's iPhone

An inside look at a sensation.

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Move slider to take apart the iPhone and see its parts.
Credit: Alastair Halliday

Apple’s latest offering proves that revolutionary tech products don’t have to be that revolutionary. Upon the iPhone’s release, enthusiasts around the world rushed to tear it apart, eager to see something new. Instead, they found that Apple had relied mostly on tried-and-true components–with one big exception: a truly stunning multitouch screen that allows users to manipulate data and images in entirely unprecedented ways.

Two Boards
One of the iPhone’s two circuit boards includes the CPU, the flash memory, and other system memory chips that allow the phone to run its stripped-down version of Apple’s OS X operating system and serve as a media device. The other board hosts the elements that enable communications: chips from ­Infineon that provide connectivity over GSM (global system for mobile) and EDGE (enhanced data rates for GSM evolution) mobile-phone networks, as well as an 802.11b/g chip from ­Marvell. ­Howard ­Curtis, the VP of global services at ­Portelligent, which analyzes electronic products, says this design leaves Apple with options. “You could isolate changes to one board and swap it out,” he says–say, to provide support for CDMA, another popular mobile-phone standard.

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The chips that make the iPhone a phone “seem to be pretty standard,” says Kyle Wiens of iFixit, an online Apple parts retailer. ­Portelligent’s Howard ­Curtis agrees: “They’re plain vanilla.” A standard Infineon Technologies processor supplies the EDGE ­wireless-­data capabilities and supports the camera and the movie playback system. There’s also a transceiver for quad-band GSM connectivity. Marvell’s chip is accompanied by a Cambridge Silicon Radio chip that offers Bluetooth 2.0. Critics scorn the iPhone for not working with AT&T’s 3G network, but Apple has said that incorporating 3G hardware would add heat and reduce battery life. Wiens says the real issue is that 3G “is practically nonexistent outside large cities.” Still, he adds, Apple will need to address this issue if it wants to sell the iPhone in Europe.

NAND Flash Memory
The iPhone comes in two models, the only difference being storage capacity: one has four gigabytes, the other eight. Both use flash memory chips from ­Samsung that are “very, very similar to, if not the same as, the ones in iPods,” says Kyle Wiens.

CPU
The phone’s brain is a custom-for-Apple CPU built by Samsung and based on a 32-bit, 620-megahertz core from ARM, which makes dedicated systems for use in cars, handheld games, smart cards, and other applications where power is at a premium. ­Howard ­Curtis says that working with ARM, a company prominent in the “embedded” market, could be significant for Apple. “OS X is now in the embedded space,” he says, even as Microsoft keeps trying to build a desirable version of Windows for the same market.

Battery
Though the iPhone’s lithium-ion battery is nothing new technically–“it’s just like the battery in an iPod, but big, very big,” says Wiens–it has gotten a lot of attention. That’s because unlike the batteries in other cell phones, the iPhone’s is soldered on and not (easily) replaceable by the user. (Apple will change a dead battery for $79 plus shipping.) At least one consumer has filed suit against Apple for its battery policy. Apple executives say that even after 400 complete depletion-and-recharge cycles, the battery will retain 80 percent of its charge capacity, which should be good for well over six hours of talk time.

Multitouch Display
Apple has had problems with the plastic screens on its iPods, which tend to show scratches, but the iPhone’s screen is made of optical-quality glass. That’s all the more critical because the screen is the interface. Instead of buttons or a keyboard, the iPhone uses a combination of new software and a unique multi­touch screen manufactured by the German company Balda. Users tap “soft” buttons directly on the screen and zoom in or out of images or Web pages with two-­fingered gestures (zoom out is a pinch, zoom in is a spread). This new control scheme abandons the WiMP (window, icon, menu, pointer) system that has dominated graphical interfaces on computers for decades.

Accelerometers
Like Nintendo’s Wii game console (see Hack, July/August 2007), the iPhone uses miniaturized accelerometers that measure its movement. These sensors detect whether the user is holding the iPhone in its “portrait” or “landscape” orientation; the operating system rotates the display accordingly.

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