Quad-core smartphones: This is their year

Well-timed product leaks have tipped the manufacturers' hand that quad-core smartphones will come at us fast and furious next month. Here's what we should see, and why it matters.

Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket
Samsung has sold millions of the dual-core Galaxy S II. Can it do it again with quad-core? Josh Miller/CNET

This year's Consumer Electronics Show may not have produced much in the way of quad-core Android phones, save one Fujitsu-made Android prototype that was encased and untouchable, but make no mistake: this is their year.

Thanks to abundant and well-defined product leaks, we have strong expectations for next month's Mobile World Congress (MWC). Thanks to quad-core devices already in existence, like the Asus Transformer Prime tablet, we also have a real-world example of just how big a performance leap we'll see between dual-core and quad-core speeds.

Quad-core phones on the horizon
Last November proffered the first peep about the HTC Edge , an Android phone that's expected to have a 4.7-inch 1,280x720-pixel HD display, an 8-megapixel camera, an Nvidia Tegra 3 1.5GHz quad-core processor, and Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. (Read more on HTC's alleged plans .)

Also boasting the quad-core Tegra 3 chipset, or so we've heard, is the LG X3. Its specs are similar to those of the HTC Edge, with a 4.7-inch 1,280x720-pixel HD display, an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera, a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera, and Ice Cream Sandwich.

Next in line, there's Samsung's third version of its insanely popular Galaxy S series Android smartphone. Although the Galaxy S II phones only landed in the U.S. just a few months ago, they launched at last year's MWC. It's very likely that we'll see the quad-core successor, the Samsung Galaxy S III , shred its previous records in processing power in this global upgrade.

And let's not forget that hands-off Fujitsu phone from CES.

Although it's no longer expected to launch at MWC, the HTC Zeta is a 2.5GHz quad-core concept phone.

Fujitsu, quad-core, Tegra 3
You have to take Fujitsu's word that this smartphone has an Nvidia quad-core processor, but at CES, it did run Android games like nobody's business. Brian Bennett/CNET

What quad-core does for you
If you're familiar with dual-core phones , quad-core follows the same principle. Put simply, the handset's central processor (CPU) contains four cores for divvying up tasks, rather than one or two CPUs.

The benefits are many, but distill into two overarching results: dramatically faster performance and better battery life. In other words, each core can work less to accomplish a task; and because tasks are split, each core requires a smaller battery contribution (at a lower voltage) than if fewer cores strained with heavier workloads apiece (requires higher voltage per core).

In a practical setting, quad-core processors promise to support sharp screen resolutions; load apps and render photos and Web pages faster; quickly and smoothly process HD video; and improve the quality of gameplay to bring it much closer to a desktop standard.

Just how much faster are they supposed to be? Nvidia has claimed that its Tegra 3 processor completes tasks up to five times faster than its Tegra 2 dual-core predecessor, and its chip for processing graphics (GPU) grew from 8 cores on the Tegra 2 version to 12 cores in Tegra 3.

Impressive as quintupling the phone's speed is, at least in theory, it's nothing compared with Nvidia's plan for exponential increases with added cores. The following release, code-named Wayne, will promise speeds up to 10 times faster than Tegra 2. Logan, the processor after Wayne, will clock speeds 50 times faster than those dual-core phones we're seeing now. In some senses, Tegra 3 is a small taste of your smartphone future, not just from Nvidia, but from all the chipmakers.

The early winners
I should note here that Android phones will receive the bulk of these quad-core processors, though there's a strong likelihood that the next iPhone will also be quad-core. Windows Phone devices are currently single-core, but according to Microsoft, process tasks differently (this is another story for another day).

The chipmakers and their partner manufacturers will all trend toward quad-core, and while the overall quality and appeal of the smartphone will drive sales, the first to bring their products to market will gain the distinct advantage.

T-Mobile G2X
T-Mobile G2X Josh Miller/CNET

In this case, as it was for dual-core smartphones, Nvidia could be the first to charge out ahead with the HTC Edge or LG X3. The LG Optimus 2X became the first globally available dual-core phone, the American version winning CNET's coveted Editors' Choice Award . A spring release date is likely.

Of course, Samsung will give Nvidia a run for its money, with phones powered by Samsung's own Exynos quad-core processor. The Galaxy S III could hit shelves as early as April, we hear.

Qualcomm, in the meantime, forecasts that phones with its quad-core Snapdragon processor will ship in time for the 2012 holiday season.

Challenges ahead
Just because a chipmaker promises mind-blowing performance doesn't mean that the processor can sustain it over the lifetime of your phone. That's why benchmarking tests and real-world observations are so important for performance geeks.

There's more engineering that goes into a multicore processor than just the CPU and GPU, and that's another way that chipmakers like Samsung, Qualcomm, and Nvidia compete.

How do you add cores without increasing the size of the chip, and therefore the phone? How do you make sure the additional cores don't overheat the phone? Building-block components like transistors need to get smaller and more efficient, which takes time and a healthy dose of Moore's Law.

Then, engineers have to figure out things like how to position the components for the best results, and code the drivers and software needed to control processing tasks. Nvidia, for instance, has added a smaller fifth core to Tegra 3, which operates at a lower lever (500MHz versus 1.5Ghz) to complete tasks while the device idles, without firing up the big guns of the other, more-powerful processing cores.

Even if a brand does get ahead, there's always the danger that anticipation for the next, better thing will slow sales sooner than you expect. Nvidia's dual-core, Tegra 2 contributions may have been first to market, but sales have halted in preparation for adopting Tegra 3, leaving the chipmaker warning investors to lower their expectations .

For speed demons, that's a good sign. Slower sales, after all, will make way for quad-core smartphones to eventually proliferate, and to beat the pants off your single-core, or even dual-core Android phone.

Editors' note: Article updated January 25, 2012, at 11:29 a.m. to correct details regarding Nvidia's "Wayne" and "Logan" builds.

 

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