Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Tick Tock

The tick/tock product development cycle was pioneered by Intel in 2006. It consists of a die-shrunk CPU “tick”, followed by a new microarchitecture “tock” using the same process size. In layman’s terms, it means a new chip family one year, and then a related revision the following year. With the iPhone 3G, followed by the 3GS, and the iPhone 4 followed the next year by the 4S, it appears that Apple is using a similar product strategy.

I’m treading in dangerous waters with any assumptions about Apple’s future plans. The fact that they have, so far, used a tick/tock pattern with the iPhone could be purely coincidental. They don’t need to give a shit about the logic of their names; this is, after all, the same company that released OS X 10.4.11.

But assuming that they do use the tick/tock product cycle, and assuming that you have a US-standard two-year mobile contract, and assuming that you will likely upgrade to the newest generation of iPhone after your contract expires, is it better to be on the “tick” or the “tock”?

To sort this out, we first need to assess the order in which Apple is developing these. At first glance, the order should be this:

Accurate tick tock cycle

However, I think the following modification makes more sense:

Better tick tock cycle

It’s illogical to start on the “tock”, granted. But it feels right in this context because, with the exception of the original iPhone, the industrial design changes significantly every two years. The iPhone 3G shared the same tech specs as the original iPhone, just with the addition of 3G networking, so there is some technical sense behind it as well. And finally, the original iPhone didn’t have a two-year contract attached to it, whereas the followup models do.1

To their advantage, owners the “tick” cycle get a brand new industrial design every two years. With the iPhone 3G, they got faster networking and GPS. With the iPhone 4, they got first dibs on the retina display, a much better camera, and FaceTime. And with this year’s 5, they’re the first adopters of the 4” display and LTE on the iPhone.

Owners in the “tock” cycle don’t get to be first, but they get a more refined experience. The rear camera on both the 3GS and 4S was a significant improvement over its predecessor’s, gaining video and tap-to-focus on the former, and near point-and-shoot quality and 1080p video for the latter. The speed increases of the aptly-named “S” models are also huge, even compared to the speed increases from a “tock” model to a “tick” one. Finally, the “tock” cycle has gained additional storage space before the “tick” cycle models; the 3GS was first to 32 GB, and the 4S was first to 64 GB.2

So which is better? Well, that entirely depends on your preference of features. The “tick” cycle has novelty going for it. The “tock” cycle has refinement as its hallmark feature. The latter is less exciting, but provides a better user experience. I prefer it, even though it means that I get to wait an additional year for a brand new industrial design.


  1. I know you can buy an unlocked iPhone, but the vast majority of people buy them with a contract. The original one could not be purchased with the requirement of a contract, but the followup models almost always are. ↩︎

  2. I do wonder if we’ll see a 128 GB iPhone 5S. ↩︎