Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Qualcomm: We're ready for quad-core 'ARM' race

Qualcomm says it provides dual-core chips that match rivals' quad-core performance. And its own quad-core silicon is on the way.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read
Tim McDonough, a marketing VP at Qualcomm. He says its dual-core Snapdragon is as fast as current quad-core chips.
Tim McDonough, a marketing VP at Qualcomm. He says its dual-core Snapdragon is as fast as current quad-core chips. Qualcomm

Qualcomm is ready to take on all comers in the smartphone and tablet performance race, a company executive told CNET.

The company's newest Snapdragon S4 chip has appeared most prominently in the U.S. version of the HTC One X smartphone. And performance reviews have been positive.

But Qualcomm has yet to bring out a quad-core version like its silicon rivals Nvidia and Samsung. This recently got some attention when HTC announced a quad-core variant of its One X in Europe and a dual-core version in the U.S. -- the latter based on the Snapdragon S4.

Qualcomm claims -- and this is borne out in certain benchmarks -- that it's the quality of the cores that matter, not the quantity. "Snapdragon S4 is more comparable to what ARM is shipping with A15," said Tim McDonough, vice president of marketing for Qualcomm CDMA Technologies, referring to next-generation silicon from chip designer ARM.

"Two cores built on next generation technology is outperforming four cores based on what a company like Nvidia may be shipping using an older generation technology," he said.

Well, that's true for some tests but not all. Just as Qualcomm's chip outperforms Nvidia's quad-core in some cases, in other tests -- cited above -- it falls short.

That said, McDonough has a point about software not being able to take advantage of multiple cores. "There's definitely an element of high end system design going on behind the scenes and how far along the software ecosystem is and its ability to take advantage of cores. There's a diminishing return on efficiency if you add more cores at some point," McDonough said.

And there's more to the story than that. While smartphones in the U.S. market are moving in force to LTE 4G, this is not necessarily happening in other parts of the world. Because Qualcomm delivers the processors and LTE on one piece of silicon, it makes sense for U.S. carriers to use Qualcomm's highly-integrated design.

Quad-core phones must use a separate chip to deliver LTE, which adds cost and can take a toll on battery life.

"There are 150 plus designs in development using S4. Most of those are with two cores and integrated LTE because there's huge benefits to having LTE built in," according to McDonough.

But if this statement sounds like Qualcomm isn't serious about quad-core, guess again. A quad-core Snapdragon S4 is coming in the second half this calendar year, McDonough said. "That will have a [separate] LTE chip sitting next to it," he said.

He continued. "Quad-core with integrated LTE is a matter of customer demand. It's very possible to do. As soon as you think you've met performance requirements, people come up with innovative things they can do with a phone. So, we're perfectly able to build LTE into a quad-core that goes into a phone," he said.

And Qualcomm's strategy for Windows 8? "What Microsoft is doing around Windows 8 [with Qualcomm] is all 28-nanometer [S4]-based products," he said, referring to the manufacturing process that S4 chips use.

"Superthin clamshells that don't have to have fans. Or convertibles that have best of both [clamshells and tablets], he said.