Fast-forward — comparing a 1980s supercomputer to the modern smartphone

Illustration of an 80's desktop computer vs a smart phone.

Perhaps you’ve heard that the smartphone in your pocket is powerful enough to have put a man on the moon in 1969. It’s one of those facts you read online that seems unbelievable, but in fact, a modern smartphone is exponentially more powerful than the guidance computer NASA used for the famous Apollo 11 mission.

Ever faster, technology advances at warp speed and computing power grows exponentially. Especially in our hyper-connected digital world, we are continuously reminded by the annual release of increasingly impressive smartphones one-upping previous models with new features, more speed, and greater capabilities.

Even those ’80s supercomputers, seen today as dusty monoliths, were already light-years ahead of the one that helped put Neil Armstrong on the moon more than half a century ago. By 1985, the supercomputer CRAY-2 had become the fastest and most powerful machine ever built. It set the world record with a peak performance of 1.9 gigaflops, or 1.9 billion floating point operations per second (FLOPS), vastly exceeding the 12,250 FLOPS peak performance of the Apollo 11 Guidance Computer just 16 years earlier.

Graphic saying, Power up — From space landings to supercomputers to smartphones.

The CRAY-2 supercomputer was designed for the United States Departments of Defense and Energy, primarily to be used for nuclear weapons research and oceanographic development.

Compare that to today’s smartphones, which are about 5,000 times faster than the CRAY-2 and have democratized technology for everyone — putting immense computing power literally in our hands and enabling previously unimaginable tasks like using your mobile device as a document scanner to be completed easily and immediately.

Graphic saying, Sizing up — Comparing a 1980s supercomputer to a modern smartphone.

One small step for computers, one giant leap for computerkind

Of course, progress didn’t stop there. The CRAY-2 held the record for a couple more years before being topped by a faster CRAY machine. Since then, computing has only continued to accelerate and improve, with technology companies like Fujitsu, Intel, IBM, and more joining the race for top speed.

All this competition spurred innovation at a breakneck pace, resulting in the tech-dominated landscape we have now, where incredible new machines become outdated and slow as soon as their immediate successors hit the market.

This trend has generally followed Moore’s Law, a prediction about the exponential growth in computing power by engineer Gordon Moore that says the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every year while the cost of computers is halved. While not as precisely accurate today as it had been for decades prior, Moore’s Law is still relevant to modern computers in that we can expect their speed and capabilities to increase constantly while also paying less for them.

Assessing computing power is highly complex, but basically it comes down to the computer's processor clock speed, which determines how quickly the central processing unit (CPU) can retrieve and interpret instructions. Clock speeds are measured in gigahertz (GHz), with a higher number meaning the computer can complete more tasks at a faster speed.

Back in 1980, Byte Magazine announced, “the era of off-the-shelf personal computers has arrived,” and the early ’80s saw the rise of home computers, as well as new software companies. In December 1982, Adobe was founded by John Warnock and Charles Geschke. Over the next decade, the company grew significantly, introducing new products to power creativity and business such as Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Acrobat — the latter launched to view, create, and manage PDFs, which had been invented in 1992.

Our 40th anniversary has us feeling a bit nostalgic, and the recent release of the new iPhone got us wondering — how big and powerful would the CRAY-2 supercomputer have had to be in 1985 to perform the same tasks as one of today’s smartphones?

Power balance — the CRAY-2 supercomputer vs. a modern iPhone

These days, our mobile devices have more computing power than all the greatest supercomputers through the turn of the 21st century. The Apple iPhone 12, for example, can perform approximately 11 teraflops, or 11 trillion operations per second — more than 5,000 times faster than the CRAY-2. That’s a lot of time-saving tasks you can do right from your phone — from checking email and social media to turning your mobile device into a scanner.

In terms of size, the footprint of the CRAY-2 mainframe was considerable. According to the company’s product introduction materials in 1985, it took up a “mere” 16 square feet of floor space. The CRAY-2 stood nearly 4 feet tall with a 5.5-foot diameter and weighed 5,500 pounds. The iPhone, which is a fraction of that size at around 16 square inches and weighing 5.78 ounces, can do 5,000 times more powerful computing.

So, what would the 1985 CRAY-2 supercomputer look like if it were scaled up to match the computing power of your handheld smartphone?

Well, imagine the behemoth that was the CRAY-2 — but 5,000 times larger. That mid-decade computer king might weigh as much as 13,750 tons (27.5 million pounds). It could also require 5,000 times more floor space, which would mean 80,000 square feet of real estate. Think of a large office building or nearly two acres of land — all in your back pocket.

Graphic saying, What would the CRAY-2 supercomputer look like if it were scaled up to match the computing power of your handheld smartphone?

Digital documents in the palm of your hand

Not long after the CRAY-2 gave way to the next, more powerful generation of supercomputers, Adobe invented the PDF in 1991 — and we’ve been perfecting digital documents and their capabilities ever since.

Rather than requiring a massive, building-sized computer, or even a laptop, you can have total digital document management in the palm of your hand. Adobe Acrobat and Acrobat Reader mobile tools let you work from anywhere and keep business going all the time, using only your smartphone.

No need for the CRAY-2 and its 80,000 square feet of floor space. You’ve already got a supercomputer in your hand that can do far more.