That fancy pants Nexus S website is touting that the device has a dedicated graphics processing unit. Is this new? To Android, yes, it’s somewhat new. Various handsets have included chipsets with a dedicated GPU, but Samsung has taken the spotlight with their insanely popular Galaxy S series phones (and the Nexus S) including a GPU.
But what is a GPU, and why would Samsung feel it important to include one in a phone? Let’s drop back a little bit and talk about desktop computers. Computers used to have dedicated chips for just about everything. They had a central processing unit (CPU), an arithmetic/logic unit (ALU), a graphics processing unit (GPU), a memory controller, flopy disk controllers, hard drive controllers, and all kinds of other stuff. As time went on the separate and highly specific chips were rolled into fewer and fewer multi-function chips.
Eventually, the “system on a chip” came out, which handled basically everything that all the separate chips did, but did so all on one chip. While this was great for cost and reducing power consumption, losing the dedicated GPU chip had some unintended consequences. Integrated GPUs weren’t all that powerful, and eventually the GPU gained new life as a dedicated graphic card, complete with a GPU and its own RAM.
Games on desktop computers took advantage of the capabilities of dedicated graphics cards to make games look eerily realistic. Desktop operating systems, however, didn’t take advantage of the processing power of the GPU until somewhat recently. Operating systems (like Windows 7) use the extra power of the GPU to display information on-screen faster and smoother, with features like transparency and slick animations. Basically, anything that’s put on the screen can be handled more efficiently by a dedicated GPU than it can by the CPU. Not only that, offloading the graphical processing from the CPU frees up the CPU to do other, non-graphical computations. Taking both into consideration, you can see how this can result in a substantial performance boost.
So what does all this have to do with Android?
Early Android’s didn’t have a dedicated GPU. In fact, most current Android’s don’t either. This means that all the graphical processing is going through the CPU, just like computers used to. This hasn’t been a problem because up until recently Android’s have basically just been phones. Now Android is powering tablet computers and even Google TV, and today’s “phones” have evolved into portable entertainment devices for playing games, watching video, and other graphically intense applications.
With Froyo, Gingerbread, and Honeycomb adding more complex animations, transitions, 3D effects, vector imagery, greater color-depth, higher resolution screens, and larger screens, the time to start leveraging the GPU is now — and Google is positioning the newest versions of Android to do just that.