Dual Core Processors in Mobile Phones – How do they help ?

What is a Dual Core Processor?

A Dual Core Processor is a CPU – a Central Processing Unit – with 2 processors inside. It’s the processors that perform the calculations or do the ‘thinking’ on a modern day smart mobile phone. Think of a Dual Core processor as two ‘brains’ instead of the one ‘brain’ you might get in a single processor phone. It’s these processors / ‘brains’ that are working on the tasks involved in executing your applications.

Dual core processors exist in laptop and desktop computers and mobile phones – although, right now, mobiles aren’t quite as powerful as their alternatives in bigger computers.

Dual Core Processor Benefits

In theory, Dual Core Processors are good for tasks that require a lot of thinking or calculation. Things like application multi-tasking are supposed to benefit from Dual Core Processors because each application can each work independently of one-another on a separate processing chip. The suggestion from the Dual Core Processor manufacturers is that having multiple chips involved in carrying out the calculations required in some tasks makes it all happen more quickly. Tasks that require a lot of calculation – working with images – taking pictures, or, especially, manipulating video and playing games, can all be done at the same time – and the phone can still run smoothly.

However, this is largely, only in theory. Intel, a popular manufacturer of computer processors, has said that even the latest Android operating system update, dual core processors are not used in any meaningful way. In fact, they’ve gone further, saying that, in some circumstances, having two cores can actually hinder the performance of the phone.

Dual Core Processor Reality

One of the issues getting across the gap between theory and reality seems to be that a dual core phone requires quite a bit of power, affecting battery life, a key usability feature of every mobile phone. In a computer, constantly connected to power, the idea of battery depletion isn’t an issue, but in a mobile, clearly, it’s an important aspect of the experience which manufacturers like HTC, Apple and Samsung, have to deal with.

When do Dual Core Processors Help ?

The ever rising numbers of megapixels in modern mobile phones have benefited from the processing power that having Dual Cores has enabled.

The standard camera resolution is 8 MP ( 8 Megapixels ) today on almost every one of the high end smart mobile phones in the Australian market. Remember, that’s about 8 million pixels which have to be read and stored every time you take a picture ! That’s a lot of calculation ! Dual Core ( and Quad Core ) processing has enabled 8MP cameras to work faster and take more pictures with shorter gaps when they’re in burst mode.

The practical benefits of the increased processing power available in Dual Core chips don’t end there. Also standard on higher end mobiles these days is high definition video recording, playback and editing. Typical resolution for high definition video is about 800,000 pixels. And your phone is taking 30 frames per second when it’s recording ! I make that 24 million pixels a second ! Manipulating the image files required to edit a video together benefits from all the ‘thinking’ power in Dual Core Chips.

So Dual Core Processors Help Gamers ?

Most people have a couple of games installed on their mobile phone. Those that use bus stops realize the benefit of Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja for whiling away the hours. More serious gamers might suspect that perhaps more than any other type of user, they stand to benefit from increased processing power that Dual Core Processors provide.

Modern, realistic, 3D games are brought to life through the power of millions of little triangles, drawn on your screen and put together in the right order to create a 3D image. By adapting each frame shown to show a slightly different collection of tiny triangles, the image is made to move. Surely this much computing power would benefit from Dual Core Chipsets ?!

Sadly, it seems not. Mostly, it’s the graphics engines in phones which do all of the calculations required and this triangle ‘painting.’ Dual Core processors have very little to do with improvements in the renditions of the graphics that make up so much of the game.

What will it take to make Dual Core processors in cell phones worthwhile?

Aside from improvements in battery technology, one of the ways that we can actually start to see a benefit from dual core processors when the software written for mobiles – either Operating System or Application is better designed to take advantage of them.

Even now, many months after the Android platform moved to Dual Core hardware, there are few Android Apps which are written to make the most of the capability and Android itself isn’t ‘multithreaded’ ( the Operating System can’t split the tasks across the processors. )

Windows Phone 8, on the other hand, has implemented dual core processing in a better way. The Windows Phone 8 Operating System is multi-threaded so it can split the tasks up and distribute them across applications as they are ‘working’. Apple too have started to use the Dual Core chips in the iPhone 5 for their panoramic picture application. That requires millions of calculations to get every pixel in the right place and line up the images taken in to a single panoramic view.

Maybe when Android 5.0 or the iPhone 6 comes around, we’ll see a true implementation of multi-core technology. Until then, stick with Whatphone and beware the marketing bumph. Dual core processors and Quad core processors are of limited value for now, beyond the on board camera and video capabilities which use them.

Neil Aitken

Having worked in 3 countries for 4 telcos on both voice and data products, Neil is in a position to give you the inside track. Get beyond the marketing messages to the best plan for you.