It looks like quad-core smartphones will be out sooner than we were expecting, but the market-wide push to such hardware will likely wait until additional quad-core chipsets become available, with NVIDIA’s Kal-El project easily the most anticipated. While we wait to see the first Kal-El chips land in Android tablets towards the end of the year, NVIDIA has published a couple new papers on its chip, and one offers a peek at a tantalizing secret we hadn’t heard of previously: the inclusion of a fifth, low-power processing core.
This fifth core is an ARM Cortex A9, just like the four main cores. As far as the operating system is concerned, it’s not even there, but the chipset will off-load work to it as needed. It’s designed to handle background tasks, like email sync, or playing music.
This “companion core” is manufactured by a process that allows it to consume little power when running at slow speeds, but those needs ramp up quickly. To balance that trade-off, the four main cores run as fast as the chip’s clock allows, but the companion core is limited to 500MHz. That lets games and video get the full attention of the hardware’s might, while maintaining that low-power option for when speed isn’t so critical. This so-called variable symmetric multiprocessing should hopefully allow quad-core chips to arrive without killing our phones’ batteries.