Quad-Core Will Reign at MWC, and Why it Doesn’t Matter

It seems like every new phone being announced at MWC this year is going to have NVIDIA’s Tegra 3 chip nestled just inside its shell — or some other quad-core which will power it to new levels of awesomeness, never before seen by man.

We talked about dual- versus quad-cores in a recent episode of The Android Guy Weekly, but now that a slew of quad-core phones are right around the corner, is “quad-core” going to significantly change the your experience? Is the Tegra 3 going to make emailing twice as fast or increase your web-surfing speeds? Or is it just a marketing gimmick?

According to benchmarks, the LG X3 scores roughly twice that of the Galaxy Nexus. Both are similarly spec’d and have the same resolution screen (processing graphics is best compared on displays of equal resolutions).

That’s just “benchmarks”, and although we like having numbers that we can wrap a ribbon around and tie into a pretty little bow, some Pocketnow readers have opined: “benchmarks don’t mean jack”. There’s some truth to that.

The true “benchmark” of a phone or tablet is how the user feels about their experience with the device. Unfortunately it’s somewhat difficult to wrap a ribbon around a person’s perception.

With all those cores, isn’t battery life going to suffer?

There are a couple schools of thought on that topic.

The first says that the more cores you have, the less time your instructions will be “stuck” in queue waiting to be processed, and will collectively take less time to process. How much truth there is to that philosophy is up for debate. Taking this logic to the extreme, an infinite number of cores should take infinitely less power to run than a single core, eventually passing a point where almost no power is required to run a core.

The other school of thought professes that the more cores you have the more overhead is required (among other things), which requires more power. Further, it’s not the addition of cores that saves power, it’s the technological advancement of increased processing speed and reduced size of the semiconductors that leads to power savings.

The Tegra 3 isn’t even a “real” quad-core processor!

But not for the reason you might think.

It’s true, the Tegra 3 isn’t even a “real” quad-core processor. In fact, it’s a “quint-core” — there are five cores humming away inside that little piece of technology.

Why call it a “quad-core” if there are really five cores? The so called “fifth core” isn’t a full-fledged “core” at all. It’s referred to as an “SMP Core” or “core companion”. It’s purpose in life is to processes “IDLE” task operations. Essentially, your power-hungry “real” cores will all but shut down when you’re not using them, letting the “core companion” do all the background work — albeit slower — which, it’s hoped, will save battery life.

What about the Operating System?

Some have said that devices running Apple’s iOS feel “much smoother” or “a lot faster” than similar devices running Android. There is some truth to that, too.

Apple opted to make the user interface King. By that I mean that any time you touch the screen everything else stops, it’s put on hold until your UI interaction is complete. Doing so gives the impression of speed, since 100% of the CPU is devoted to taking care of the user experience. Anything and everything happening in the background has to wait until the UI thread is done.

Android, on the other hand, considers the UI just another thread among all the others. Some people call the resulting user experience “laggy”, when ironically, it may be completing tasks faster. Your tasks get done quicker on Android because they’re not put “on hold” like they are in iOS. Of course, the perception is that it’s slower, even when it’s not. Android’s solution to this? More cores!

Will more cores really make a difference?

The answer is probably yes. Users will “see” speed improvements in the overall performance of their apps and the Android OS itself. However, there will likely still be “lag” caused by not giving the UI 100% of all available resources. There will probably be plenty of perceived “lag” to continue to complain about — even with four cores.

As far as multimedia goes, more cores will result in smoother video, sharper graphics, better games, and more realism. More cores will help in this area, and probably quite substantially!

Will more cores make your email faster? Probably not. Web surfing? Possibly a little.

Regardless, we probably won’t see the number of cores dropping off any time soon. After quad-core smartphones are the norm, someone will eventually call that “core companion” an additional core, so “quint-core” phones will be advertised. Maybe we’ll even see multiple “companions” and get 6×2 cores.

Sure, it’s a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick that sells more phones and tablets now, and will continue to get people to upgrade into the future.

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy". By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video. Read more about Joe Levi here.