“640K ought to be enough for anybody.” —Abraham Lincoln
The infamous 640K quote is one of those computing myths still told by the glow of computer monitors to poke fun at the folly, and perhaps bemoan the short-sightedness, of Microsoft.
Usually (mis)attributed to Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder has denied ever saying anything remotely similar, and says he has actually argued the exact opposite.
While finding the origin of the quote could be interesting, what is more important is the limitation it highlighted.
The “640K” refers to the maximum amount of random access memory (RAM) the first IBM PCs (and compatibles) could use due to the specifications of the Intel 8088 processor.
Even with the advent of Intel 80286 and 80386 processors (which were able to address more memory), to maintain compatibility with older hardware and operating systems programmers had work within the limits of the so-called “640K barrier”.
Nowadays we don’t talk about memory in terms of kilobytes (KB) or even Megabytes (MB) anymore, but Gigabytes (where 1GB is 1,048,576KB).
Yet, before we even got the the 640K barrier, computer users made do with 100 times less than that.
The Apple II – or Apple ][ as it was stylised – is one of the computers credited with kickstarting the personal computing revolution, and was available in a model with as little as 4KB of RAM.
IBM’s competitor, the IBM PC, which launched some 4 years later (and introduced the 640K barrier) didn’t even have a 640K model at launch. The original IBM PC shipped with 16KB of user memory, which could be increased to 256KB with optional memory cards.
Here is a spec comparison between these two personal computing icons, as well as a couple of other big names from the period. Let’s see how they match up to the processing power found in some of today’s smartphones.
|Computing power comparison|
|The Giants upon whose shoulders we stand|
|Apple ][||1977||1MHz Mos Technology 6502||4KB, 8KB, 12KB, 16KB, 20KB, 24KB, 32KB, 36KB, 48KB, or 64KB||Lo-res (40×48, 16-color), Hi-res (280×192, 6 color)|
|IBM PC||1981||4.77MHz Intel 8088||16KB – 256KB||CGA (320×200 and 640×200)|
|Commodore 64||1982||~1MHz MOS Technology 6510||64KB||320×200, 16 colors (VIC-II)|
|ZX Spectrum||1982||3.5MHz Zilog Z80||16KB / 48KB / 128KB||256×192, 7 colours (2 shades each) + black|
|BlackBerry Z30||2013||1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800||2GB||1280×720 (Adreno 320)|
|Nokia Lumia 1520||2013||2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800||2GB||1920×1080 (Adreno 330)|
|iPhone 5s||2013||1.3GHz dual-core Apple A7||1GB||1136×640 (PowerVR G6430)|
|Nexus 5||2013||2.26GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800||2GB||1920×1080 (Adreno 330)|
|Samsung Galaxy S5||2014||2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 / 2.1GHz+1.5GHz Exynos 5 octa-core||2GB||1920×1080 (Adreno 330)|
The table above summarises the key processor, RAM, and graphics specifications of the PCs of yesteryear and today’s top-of-the-range smartphones.
Below is an infographic which compares the Apple II to its much younger cousin, the iPhone 5s; and the IBM PC to the newly launched Samsung Galaxy S5.
It should be noted that for the sake of simplicity the comparison looked only at the clock speed of the processors, quantity of memory, and pixels supported by the graphics adapters.
Other advancements in technology such as multi-core processors, faster RAM, and better display technology means that modern computers are an even greater improvement than raw clock rates and memory sizes suggest.