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Processors: The Core Score

Written by Ketan Pratap
05 Dec 2012 at December 5, 2012

“Processors” are the latest buzzword when it comes to smart phones. Just as they did with computers, manufacturers have started boasting about the clock speed of the processors powering their devices. We take a closer look at what the processor does and to what extent the tall claims about its speed and cores are justified.

Usually, when it comes to buying a mobile, we think of owning the trendiest device and hunt for a phone with features like a new operating system, good display, good camera, and connectivity options and so on. And one new feature that has been added to this list in recent times is the processor. Whenever the term ‘processor’ comes, some names spring to mind- Qualcomm Snapdragon, ARM Cortex, NVIDIA Tegra, Intel Medfield, etc. These names are often tossed around in the spec sheets of devices as well. And now to these have been added terms like clock speed, dual core and quad core. But does all this actually make a difference to the end user or is it just pure marketing hype, just as had happened with megapixels in cameras not too long ago?

What is a processor?

Just as every computer has a processor to handle its functioning, so too does every mobile handset. Technically, a processor is that part of a computer system or device which executes instructions. It functions as core component and whether a computing device is low-priced or a pricey one, it almost always will have a processor at its core, handling tasks. The smartphone processor acts as a device’s intellect that handles most or all of the CPU’s tasks on a single integrated circuit or chip. In fact, the operating system and even the support for hardware are determined by the type of processor used in a mobile. And what are those cores about? Most people do not know much about the nitty-gritty of how a CPU installed in the mobile device interacts with the software. A simple logic that is followed by most of them is: the more cores a device has, the better it is likely to perform, means the better is it than others. Well, technically that is correct. These days smartphones are being used for doing multiple tasks, such as browsing, streaming videos, gaming and HD video playback. These tasks are expanding the functionalities of processors and in order to do all these tasks, there needs to be a part of the system that can carry out and process those functions, which is where the multi-core processors come into the picture. Now, whether a processor is single, dual or quad core depends on how many CPU cores it has. Generally, processors with several CPU cores make it easier for a system to multitask without compromising on speed of performance. A smartphone with a multi-core processor will generally allow faster Web browsing, easier watching of 3D content and even run apps that use advanced graphics smoothly. Multi-core processors in mobile devices have enabled advanced use cases such as desktop class Web browsing, console class gaming, panoramic photo stitching, multi-tasking, and advanced image processing. Vishal Dhupar, managing director, Asia South, NVIDIA, explains the role of multicore processors in these terms: “Multi-core processing has been at the heart of the computing revolution for more than a decade. They (multi-core processors) can operate at lower frequency, often consuming less power, and completing work much faster by running tasks in parallel compared to single-core predecessors. Multi-core means increase in the number of cores; however it doesn’t mean that all the cores are used for every task assigned to the device. Every core of a mobile processor is defined with the tasks to be performed, for ease of segregation of tasks. ”Processors

Multiple cores, multiple benefits

Until recently, multi-core processors were the preserve to computers. However, they are slowly becoming an integral part of smartphones too. And no, this is not just a matter of jargon. Multi-core processors can deliver the following benefits to users:

Gaming: Multi-core powered devices provide support for advanced graphical techniques like anti-aliasing that smooth out rough edges giving stunning visuals, and also allows enable user to play 3D games on these devices.

Full HD video: Multi-core processors enable users to access 1080p resolution videos both in terms of device’s camera and movie playback. A multi-core processor powered device can even pump out videos matching a large TV’s resolution.

Multi-tasking: The multi-brained architecture of processors suits multi-tasking. This means you can run more apps, games and even browse at the same time without affecting the device’s performance.

Battery-Life: Although multi-core processors claim to bring better battery management to mobile devices, this is one area where they have not been very convincing – many multi-core devices have suffered from poor battery life. So the ‘more cores = better performance’ argument does seem to have some merit in it. NVIDIA’s Vishal Dhupar explained how the company’s Tegra 3 chip handled operations for users. “NVIDIA Tegra 3’s 4-PLUS-1 quad core architecture with Variable SMP technology intelligently switches between high performance CPU cores and the low power battery saver core to deliver both high performance and long battery life. Tegra 3 has multiple processing cores that not only include a quadcore CPU but also a GPU core, ISP core, audio and video processing cores. Depending on the use case, one or more high performance CPU cores are used to deliver the required performance. “ On the other hand, Intel’s Prashanth Adiraju, director New Platform Business Group, Intel South Asia told us how Intel’s technology is different from others. “Our Atom Processor is designed to provide all advanced capabilities to a smartphone. It uses the Hyper-Threading Technology that increases performance and system responsiveness to meet the requirements for advanced smartphones. Additionally, Intel Burst Performance Technology enables the Intel Atom processor to burst to higher performance that offers higher performance on smartphones.”

A multi-core future

Given the speed at which the mobile industry has moved from single to dual to quad-core processors, there is every chance that mobile phones and tablets of the future will come powered by even more core-laden processors. A point to note, however, is that the multiple core phenomenons has so far remained restricted largely to high-end devices. Critics of multiple core processors point out that there are not many apps or even games that are designed to benefit from multi-core processors. That said, we feel it is only a matter of time before multiple core devices become mainstream, just as 1 GHz processors did a year ago. So if you are looking at purchasing a device and want it to deliver stunning performance over a long period of time, it makes sense to count the cores in its processor!

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