Core of original Apple tablet lives on in iPhone, iPad

iFixit tears down the Apple Newton: Its DNA is still around.

In tearing down the original Apple tablet, iFixit demonstrates that more than a decade later, a core piece of Newton technology lives on in the iPhone and iPad .

Apple MessagePad 2000
Apple MessagePad 2000 iFixit

At the heart of the iPad is Apple's A4 processor, which is based on core technology from United Kingdom-based ARM. Ditto for the ARM-based iPhone. More than 15 years earlier, in 1993, the Apple MessagePad, aka Newton, also used an ARM chip. By 1997, the Newton design had evolved into the MessagePad 2000 with a StrongARM chip from Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC).

And ARM has been a stunning success, as evidenced by Apple's adoption of the design in the iPhone and iPad and its ubiquity in popular small devices like the BlackBerry and the Amazon Kindle. Moreover, ARM silicon will inhabit a number of future tablets based on Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Marvell, and Nvidia chips.

Which means that the iPad is part of a larger ecosystem driving the next computing paradigm outside of the galactic Intel sphere of influence. "There's healthy competition that goes on amongst our (chip) partners," said Jeff Chu, segment marketing manager for mobile computing at ARM. "Nvidia competing with Qualcomm competing with Marvell competing with TI (Texas Instruments). We see this as good for the ecosystem, good for the consumer. It keeps things moving forward," he said.

Apple silicon DNA today can be traced back to the Apple Newton: below the larger Cirrus Logic chip is a DEC StrongARM processor.
Apple silicon DNA today can be traced back to the Apple Newton: below the larger Cirrus Logic chip is a DEC StrongARM processor. iFixit

And there's more than a little irony here. Intel got the StrongARM chip design from DEC in 1997 when the Apple Newton had become the MessagePad 2100 and was using a StrongARM processor. By Intel's standard of success in the PC business, it failed miserably in the world of ARM-based computing. Ultimately, Intel sold off its StrongARM business--which it branded as XScale--to Marvell in 2006.

As iFixit shows (see photo above), the Newton used DEC's 162 MHz StrongARM SA-110S 32 bit ARM Processor. Other notable silicon includes: two Sharp (2MB) flash ROM chips, Cirrus Logic's PS 7010/20/30 CPU Subsystem, Analog, and PCMCIA controllers, Hitachi DRAM, and Linear Technology's AppleTalk Transceiver.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.


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