Quad Core Processors : Helpful or Marketing Doubletalk ?

Quad Core Processors

The journey towards Quad Core Processors has been faster than you’d think. Beginning with the LG Optimus 2X in January 2011, the Australian market started to break away from the world of Single Processors in it’s mobile phones. The Optimus ‘doubled up’ to ‘Dual Cores’. Then, in 2012, high end mobile specification lists started to feature ‘Quad Core Processors.’

Clearly, there is fierce competition between the different device manufacturers both in the components they use and the marketing advantage that those components represent to them. If HTC have a Quad Core Processor device on a shelf next to a Dual Core product from Samsung – at the same price – people are likely to believe that the Quad Core Processor device is faster and therefore better.

Processing speed can make a big difference to the experience people have on a mobile phone. People prefer applications to open quickly. They expect to run multiple apps and types of content at the same time. But can multiple chip types help with those requirements now ? What effect Quad Cores have on battery life ? Where does the marketing end and the reality begin ?

Basics : What is a Quad Core Processor?

The processors we’re talking about are also known as device’s Core ( or, in the case of Quad core Processor devices, Cores. ) These Cores are actually the products’ CPUs or Central Processing Units. A CPU is where the ‘thinking’ is done on the device. The more processors a phone has, the quicker it can think. At least, that’s the theory.

Processors are important bits of equipment in phones. They perform thousands, sometimes millions of calculations per second. Processors help to turn a file on your device in to a video you can watch. They turn what you just typed in to data and send it over the wireless network for you as an email.

When a device has more than one of these individual cores / processors / CPUs, the manufacturer ties them together so they can work in unison as a ‘team’. Two together makes a Dual Core Device. 4 processors together a Quad Core Device.

A Quad Core Processor then, is a processor that contains four cores or CPUs.

Quad Core Benefits

The argument in favor of Quad Core Proocessors is that it makes multitasking more efficient. Multitasking is using many applications at once.

Multitasking is important on mobile phones because of all the calculation they do. Every pixel in a high resolution video on, say, the 1280 x 720 screen of the Samsung Galaxy S3 has to be put there with a calculation. Each pixel needs to be extracted from the video file and placed on the screen in the right spot. All of that takes a lot of processing power.

The principal behind having multiple processors in a device is that, by splitting the tasks, or even the same task, between multiple processors, you’ll get it done more quickly. With multiple processors to split tasks over, different bits of ‘thinking’ can be assigned to different cores / processors at the same time. Those tasks can all be done at once giving you a quicker result.

Imagine you had 4 assignments to do. Maths, English, Science and History homework for example. A single core processor would do each task in turn, working as hard as it could to get through them quickly, like you doing all of those assignments yourself. A Quad Core device could do them all at once by multitasking.

Moving between open applications, editing video and adapting images, games, especially 3D games – basically anything which involves a lot of calculations – are all potentially more fluid experiences on multi processor devices.

With a lot of ‘spare processing power’, your processors could also be less likely to get caught in knots and ‘freeze’ up.

Quad Core Processors Battery Effect

It’s commonly believed that the more cores there are in your Smartphone, the quicker your battery will wear out. Some companies like Sony do not including Quad Core Processors in their phones because of concerns over the battery life issue.

But that’s not always the case. The manufacturers who make Quad Core Chips claim that tasks are distributed across the chips – say a game on one chip and music on another.

Going back to the situation where there were 4 different assignments to deliver, a Quad Core Processor device can split the assignments between each of the 4 processors, one each. With a team of processors working on the assignments, theory suggests they will not finish them quicker, they will have to work less hard to do it. This could mean that Quad Core Processor devices will consume less power when compared to single-core processors conducting the same tasks.

Additionally, the processors are designed so the cores can be shutoff when not in use. When they are put on standby in this way, they can  save power.

The alternative, remember, is having a single processor which does all the work. Manufacturers often describe this like a car engine ‘revving’. It’s more ‘fuel’ ( battery ) efficient to have a couple of engines ( processors ) running at low revs than to have a single engine ( processor ) ticking in the red on the rev counter to achieve the same thing. In that sense, having 2 or more processors actually uses less battery in some situations.

Who Manufacturers Quad Core Processors ?

NVIDIA, MediaTek, Qualcomm, Samsung, and LG are all mainstream manufacturers of Quad Core Processors. There is probably one of their processors in your mobile right now !

If you listen to the manufacturers, you will hear names which, in truth, are of little importance to all except the most advanced and technical users : Snapdragon, Qualcomm, Nvidia, Tegra 3s.

As usual, all this tech talk is actually pretty simple when you break it down.

The key facts are these :

  • Almost all Smartphone processors are based on a single ‘ARM’ design ( they’re the guys that invented the ARM processor ) design
  • Whatever mobile phone you buy, from whichever manufacturer you choose, it’s almost certainly for an ARM chip in the middle of it.
  • Some manufacturers then adapt that basic chipset for their own requirements.

Chip Manufacturer 1 : ARM

  • As usual, Apple are tight lipped about this sort of thing. You won’t even see the chip type mentioned in Apple’s iPhone 4 marketing literature. However, behind the scenes, it’s known that  Apple use the basic ARM A4 chip for the iPhone  4 and Dual Core ARM processors (A5s ) for Apple 4S.

Chip Manufacturer 2 : NVIDIA

  • One of the current Nvidia processors is the Tagra 3 which you might have heard was used in the HTC 1X. Despite being called a quad core product, the Tagra 3 chipset actually has 5 chips, including one which is sometimes called a companion core. The companion core handles the basics up on the phone up to and including video and audio playback. The companion core saves battery life by chewing only low levels of power for these basic functions.

Chip Manufacturer 3 : Qualcomm

  • Snapdragon is the chip which runs quad cores between 1.5GHz and 2.5 GHz. It can be dual or quad core. These chips were used in the original Samsung Galaxy S device.

Chip Manufacturer 4 : Samsung

  • The Galaxy SIII uses Samsung’s own Exynos quad core processor.

Is a Quad Core Processor Faster in Real Life ?

On paper Quad Core Processors are theoretically faster than Dual Core or Single Core Processors. NVIDIA ( one of the key processor manufacturers, mentioned above ) claim that their Quad Core Processors allow game play which is smoother and faster. However, the claims of better game play, battery life and fewer ‘freezes’ may not all be justifiable.

In order to see any significant difference in the ability to use the theoretical capabilities, and benefit from the speed new software often has to be written to do what’s called ‘multi-threading’. Multi-threading is essentially just designing software or content to use multiple processors – the theoretical multi-tasking capability – at once.

The operating system, applications and other software tools you are running on your Quad Core Processor must be specially written or rewritten, in order to take advantage of the new Quad Core hardware. At this point, most applications are not rewritten in this way and so users don’t get the benefits.

What’s the future of Quad Core Processors ?

On balance, it seems that, right now, the benefits of Quad Core Processors are limited at best. The major improvement they offer appear to be in the marketing of the phones. In situations where a lot of calculation is required – taking panoramic pictures or editing high definition video for example, Quad Core capabilities may be of help both to the speed with which the calculation is done, and battery life.

In the future, there is potential to realize the beneficial capability of multiple cores. Updates to Android, Windows Phone and iOS will make use of multi-threading opportunities. Application developers will find ways to write apps and games which multi-thread tasks.

For now, the chip manufacturers are working with content and app providers to develop applications and content which will make full use of the chips they’ve developed.

In our view, you are always better off buying the latest technology. Those who don’t often find themselves regretting it later in the day when the world moves on and they’re left behind. With a Dual or Quad Core Processor, you’re future proofed.

However, try not to worry too much about whether the mobile phone you’re considering has Dual Core or Quad Core. Right now, the truth is that in some ways, the hardware has evolved far ahead of software and content which is available.

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.