The core truth

Nandagopal Rajan        Print Edition: July 22, 2012

The Apple iPhone 4S is widely considered the world's best smartphone. It is also the most popular. But HTC and Samsung beg to differ. To establish their HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy SIII respectively as better, they have been flaunting the quad-core muscles of these two products. The iPhone so far has had a dual-core processor. So, what exactly is a quad-core processor? Simply put, instead of getting the tasks a smartphone performs done by one (single-core) or two (dual-core) processors, a quad-core processor delegates them to four different cores.

Nandagopal Rajan
Nandagopal Rajan
According to ARM, the leading designer of microprocessors, quad-cores are better because they "scale the performance (of a device) to your actual compute needs… So rather than having a big core doing a small task, you have right size computing". It was, in fact, ARM which created the quadcore 1.4 GHz Cortex-A9 chip used in the Samsung Galaxy SIII.

Quad-core phones are 1.6 times quicker, or about 160 per cent faster than their dual-core counterparts, claims ARM. Others, however, are sceptical, given that only the number of chips in the quad-core double, not the battery's power or the system memory. Qualcomm , which also makes such processors, has been quoted as saying that the speed jump when a device moves from dual to quad-core is merely around 25 per cent. This might not mean much if you are making a call or surfing, but for gaming and features such as HD video playback and recording, this added power is significant.

Phone makers claim quad-core increases battery life as, with the work distributed, none of the cores has to do anything heavy. But others say just the opposite, that multiple cores drain the battery faster, drawing on the analogy of a multiple-cylinder car engine which burns more fuel. Mobile quadcore pioneer NVIDIA uses a fifth 'companion' core to perform most of the simpler tasks and powers up the other engines only if something more demanding comes along.

There is no doubt that quad-core is, indeed, the future of mobile phones. As we entrust more demanding tasks to our phones, we will need a processor that can carry out multiple tasks. But the question is whether the quad-core processor is really worth the extra money.

Also, the biggest problem with the current technology is that there is no software that can fully utilise this powerful hardware. Quad-cores are primarily being used on Android phones. But neither the Android operating system (OS) nor the apps that run on it have been optimised to exploit the best of quad-core processors.

In other word, they have not been written to 'multi-thread', or assign different tasks to different cores. And since writing this code is no easy task, we still do not have apps that can use the full power of the processor. "It is a bit like trying to drive a Ferrari in peak-hour Bangalore traffic. The car can touch speeds of 200 kmph, but there is just no road where you can hit that speed," says a senior official at Intel. He does not discredit the power of quad-core, but believes it is no more than a gimmick at present, especially since "software is lagging far behind hardware".

Interestingly, in the US, the HTC One X version has a dual-core processor. If we concede that HTC will not sell an inferior product in a market as important as North America, we come to the conclusion that this particular phone is good even with a dual-core chip inside. That is something to think about.

The new Windows phones run on single-core processors while the iPhone 4S is dual-core. Both seem to be doing pretty well. Yes, it is a bit early to label the single and dual-core phones as inferior devices. At least, not when quad-core does not yet have an arena to prove its might. So, if you have not yet bought that dream quad-core phone, maybe you should wait. Just like the Ferrari should wait for the expressways to be built before hitting Indian roads.

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