Touch Podium

Providing you with the best up-to-date news, apps, games, and themes available for your iPod Touch/iPhone.

Can’t Touch This (Your Handheld is Not a Desktop)

Posted by Eric March on February 3, 2008

I told you, homeboy.Look. The iPod Touch and iPhone are awesome machines. For what they are and what they do, they are powerful, versatile, and chock full of style points in the usual Apple tradition. What we have seen so far on these devices has been nothing short of impressive; many of the games are tons of fun and impressive both visually and technically, to say nothing of some of the cool apps. I have no doubt that many of the apps in the jailbreak scene have sold no small number of Touches and iPhones on their own strengths. However, there is a great deal of misconception about what these little devices are capable of; they ooze so much awesome that it’s hard for some people to believe that they couldn’t play Crysis at full detail while balancing the national budget, accounting for 75% of resolved proteins for Folding @ Home, and picking out Barack Obama’s next suit.

As much as I hate to be the pin to your balloon of pride, I’m afraid I have some bad news: It can’t. Sure, these devices really are little computers, and they really are running OS X, albeit a slimmed down, very limited version of it, but they do not have the same capabilities as that big box next to your desk. It would be far more accurate to think of them as PDAs or SmartPhones, because that’s really the class they are in. (Never mind what Steve said.)

The iPod Touch and iPhone both sport a 32-bit, 400MHz processor, 128MB of RAM and a simple 3D accelerator to make all those nifty effects possible. In comparison, that’s a lot like a mid-range Pentium II or G3 Macintosh with a very basic 3D video accelerator. Now consider what would be possible on a desktop computer of that caliber, and you will have a bit of an idea of what the Touch is capable of.

Given this, it shouldn’t be difficult to realize that there are just some things that are not possible to any reasonable degree on the Touch. Some old 3D games such as Doom, Marathon, Duke Nukem 3D — maybe even Quake — are possible on the Touch and iPhone (ignoring for the moment a sensible control mechanism for a device that has no usable buttons), but anything newer or more complex than that and you’re asking for trouble. Quake II? Maybe — slowly. You might even be able to squeeze a slow rendition of Half Life in there. But Doom III? Half Life 2? Halo? Now you’re just talking crazy talk. The Touch and Phone simply don’t have the stones for it.

Emulation is an area where there are even greater misconceptions. We already have Game Boy Advance, NES and Playstation (though this is slow), and very shortly we can expect Super NES to join the growing throng. These are relatively low-powered consoles that the Touch is capable of dealing with to one degree or another. But what about PS2? Xbox? Dreamcast? Sorry — not happening. To explain why, let’s consider what emulation involves.

In its most basic definition, emulation is taking the program code from one computer and making another one capable of understanding and executing it. This is a tremendous oversimplification though, because a computer is a lot more than just a CPU. The computer doing the emulating has to be capable of completely mimicking the functionality of the other computer’s CPU, graphics processor(s), 3D processor(s) (if present), math co-processor (if present), sound hardware, BIOS, peripheral controllers, and every other thing that the other computer does, preferably down to the last minute detail if you want an accurate and compatible emulator. And it has to do all of this at the same time. Imagine if you had to listen to half a dozen people all speaking different languages, all at once, very rapidly, and having to translate every single one into English speech, Kanji logographics, Egyptian hieroglyphics, American sign language, Irish folk song, interpretive dance, and expressed as mathematical equations. Simultaneously. In real-time. Chances are that’s fairly impossible for you to conceptualize — but it should give you some idea of what an emulator has to to. It has to be able to translate each and every function of each and every component of the emulated machine into functions that can be understood and executed by the each and every component of the machine doing the emulating — all at the same time.

I shouldn’t have to tell you by now that this takes a lot of horsepower to do. The general rule of thumb is that the machine doing the emulating should be at least ten times more powerful overall than the machine it is emulating. This isn’t just measuring CPU; math co-processors, sound chipsets, graphic chipsets, memory managers, object processors, and peripheral controllers all come into play here, too. There are some optimizations that emulator developers can do to reduce the requirements of the host computer (the one doing the emulating) — high-level emulation (HLE) and dynamic recompilation (Dynarec) are techie terms that, at a basic level, can result in faster emulation. Even that only goes so far, though; in the end, it still comes down to a matter of the host machine’s horsepower put up against the high demands that emulating a particular platform’s components place on it.

Even having said all of this there is so much more detail I could go into to explain why this or that platform is or is not capable of being emulated on the iPhone or Touch, but that would require that I start spewing a bunch of technical mumbo-jumbo about bus bandwidth, shaders, memory architecture, and so on, and you’d probably be bored to tears even if you could understand half of it. Let me instead generalize by saying that, as a general rule, any game console or computer platform released before, say, 1993, (or handheld platform released before 2002) can probably be emulated to a pretty high degree, but anything else will be some degree of unlikely to impossible.

I know it may disappoint you to hear this, but with the large number of misconceptions floating around about our wonderful little devices, I felt that a few weights needed to be tied to those balloons to bring them back down to Earth.

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