Smartphones today are expected to be able to deal with a host of different applications, processes and commands simultaneously, all alongside ‘traditional’ functions such as calls and messaging.
These ever-increasing demands have caused manufacturers to look at numerous ways in which to deal with handset design and performance, from battery life to storage options. However, the feature which has a greater effect on performance than any other is the onboard processor.
Rapid development in CPUs has seen the smartphone industry move towards a more PC-based aesthetic, with multi-core units now becoming the norm across the field. However, there still remains a lack of consensus as to whether dual-core, or indeed quad-core processors are the correct way forward for device manufacturers.
In this article we will take a look at how mobile processors work, who the major players are, and the continued development of the technologies involved.
How Processors Work
In order to cope with the multitude of tasks levelled at it at any given time, a smartphone must have a controlling force which is able to cope with and process all information. This is the role of the processor, essentially acting as a brain for the smartphone and carrying out all basic calculations and dedicating resource to performing the many tasks asked of a device.
So far, so PC. But where personal computers have the space for separate components such as graphics processors and peripheral buses, mobile phones have extremely confined space restraints in which to work. As such, the System-on-a-Chip (SoC) came about, meaning that the various processing components can be placed onto one compact chipset. So in most cases, when a smartphone processor is being discussed, it is technically the whole SoC that is being taken into consideration.
At the heart of any SoC is the central processor unit (CPU) and it is this unit that oversees everything within the device, from touch-screen functions to running the operating system. The vast majority of CPUs are designed around a blueprint from a company called ARM (although Intel are looking to introduce a totally new system – more about this later) and the various chip manufacturers create a variation (or sometimes direct copy) of this design in order to build their own SoCs.
It is within the CPU that the ‘multi-core’ aspect of processors comes in, with the terms dual-core or quad-core literally referring to the amount of CPU cores on the SoC. While it doesn’t quite mean that every core added will double processing speed, it does stand to reason that more CPU cores will enable the SoC, and in turn the handset, to run more efficiently.
The Major Players
The processor market is dominated by four manufacturers, each offering their adaptation of the ARM architecture. First up is US-based Qualcomm and its hugely successful range of Snapdragon processors. This series has featured in numerous handsets including the HTC One S, BlackBerry Bold 9900 and Sony Xperia S. Initially starting out with the Scorpion design-base (as found in the Nokia Lumia range of handsets), the company has recently released its S4 platform which has found its way into the HTC One X for AT&T, and the Asus Padfone.
NVIDIA is another key manufacturer with its Tegra platform first appearing in 2008. The company made headlines in 2010 when it unveiled its Tegra 2 SoC, the world’s first dual-core processor, making its debut powering the LG Optimus 2X. Less than a year later the Californian company was also first to market with a quad-core processor in the form of the Tegra 3. This landmark SoC has found its way into the HTC One X and the LG Optimus 4X HD, and is also notable for its use of a low power fifth core in order to conserve battery power during low-level tasks such as texting and making calls.
With its OMAP family of chipsets, Texas Instruments has found favour in a number of key devices including the Amazon Kindle Fire, Huawei Ascend D1 and Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Of particular interest is the fifth generation OMAP 5 SoC which has a particular emphasis on 3D processing power and the ability to support 20 megapixel onboard cameras.
Samsung’s semiconductor division recently came through with an in-house chipset known as Exynos. The Exynos 4210 SoC saw success when employed in both the Galaxy S II and Galaxy Note devices, and the latest iteration of the Exynos series, the 4 Quad, is responsible for powering the forthcoming Galaxy S III (and reportedly uses 30% less power than its predecessor).
Samsung is also responsible for the manufacturing of Apple’s A series of chipsets as used in the iPhone and iPad, although the design is undertaken by Apple itself. The third generation iPad which was launched earlier this year was widely expected to feature the much-anticipated A6 quad-core processor but instead launched with an updated A5 processor known as the A5X. This CPU is notable, however, for featuring a quad-core GPU unit within the chipset.
Despite all of the main manufacturers building around ARM architecture, Intel has taken the unique approach of designing its own system from the ground up with the Atom family of SoCs. Of particular interest is the Medfield platform which was debuted at CES 2012 and the company’s announcement that it would be working with Motorola to produce a line of Android-powered smartphones and tablets. The Atom series has yet to gain traction in the smartphone world but if it does, the landscape could change considerably, in large part due to an end of ARM dominance in the field.
Does Multi-Core Matter?
Although the current trend in mobile is for handsets to feature dual-core processing power as a minimum (with flagship devices expected to have quad-core), the debate still rages as to whether there is actually any benefit in multi-core over that of a single-core SoC.
Nokia has maintained the single-core approach across its family of devices, including the new flagship Lumia 900. Mark Squires, Nokia’s UK director of communications, suggests that the Finnish manufacturer takes a holistic approach to its smartphone design, rather than focussing on processor power. Squires says: “Whilst quoting processor speeds and cores may sound impressive, it is important to realise that unless these features are used properly by applications specifically designed for them, then there is potentially no benefit, and this can result on a faster drain on the battery.”
Other manufacturers though have fully embraced the multi-core approach, with 2012 already seeing quad-core handsets from Samsung, ZTE, Huawei and LG. HTC has also made headlines with it’s One X smartphone which is powered by the NVIDIA Tegra 3 quad-core SoC. James Atkins, HTC’s head of marketing for the UK and Ireland says: “Quad-core isn’t just about multitasking, as it also enables enhanced entertainment on your mobile device.
“With powerful processing capabilities developers can now create even more advanced games and apps for customers, taking fluid game play, multitasking and blazingly fast responses to the next level.”
So, it looks like the debate over processing power is set to rage on for some time yet. It does seem safe, however, to assume that mobile technology will continue to accelerate on an unprecedented scale over the coming years. Nate Lanxon, editor at Wired.co.uk, has drawn parallels between the evolution of smartphones and that of personal computers. Lanxon says: “What’s interesting to see is that smartphones are following the same patterns PCs did a decade ago, moving away from the ‘gigahertz race’ and into multi-core territories, with things like RAM and processing efficiency all factors consumers are starting to pay attention to when making a buying decision.”
Although manufacturers evidently have differing opinions on the multi-core approach, it is an undeniably exciting time in the world of mobile communications. The technology is moving at a pace never seen before and, as such, can only lead to increased functionality, higher levels of efficiency and ultimately a more involving smartphone experience.
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