Will you care for quad-core processors in phones?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| Published: January 13, 2012

Although we didn't see a lot of them this past week, quad-core processors are about to hit the mobile space pretty hard. We've caught a preview of quad-core technology with the ASUS Transformer Prime, but that is only the beginning. In the next couple months, more and more tablets will begin to ship with quad-core – not just NVIDIA's Tegra 3 – technology. And phones, too, will begin to follow that trend shortly thereafter.

In fact, just three days ago, Fujitsu showed off the prototype of what could ultimately be the world's first quad-core phone. Just like 2011 was the year of the Tegra 2 and many other dual-core chipsets (like the Snapdragon, Exynos and TI OMAP), this is just the first of many quad-core phones to come.

We all knew mobile processors with abundant cores were eventually bound to happen, thanks to a leaked NVIDIA slide back in January of 2011. It was in November when we heard first rumors of a quad-core phone. It was the HTC Zeta, which is rumored to tout a staggering 2.5GHz quad-core APQ8064 chip. But I don't think it occurred to any of us just how quickly quad-core devices were coming until the first tablet was released in December and the first actual prototype handset was shown off this week.

After the first rumor of the Zeta broke, it forced me to ask whether we actually needed quad-core processors inside phones. My conclusion at the time was that quad-core processors in something as small as a handset was pointless and overkill – nothing but bragging rights, and I would have prefered to see improvements in other areas, such as camera, GPU or RAM, over adding a few extra, (what I then thought to be) unnecessary cores.

Whether we need two extra cores or not is not going to be the case in just a few short months. They're going to be here, like it or not; then, it will be a matter of whether you want the supposed benefits of a quad-core phone or not.

I had a nice chat with some folks at the NVIDIA booth on Wednesday and learned some pretty interesting facts about the Tegra 3 and other processor technologies. For instance, dual-core processors introduced lower battery consumption due to the spreading of power over two cores instead of one. Likewise, quad-cores spread that power out even further, meaning battery consumption is even lower, by four times to be exact. In the Tegra 3, you also have a fifth "companion" core that kicks in when the other cores are not needed. As an example, I was told that the four cores would work together to pull the data and load a Web page as efficiently as possible and the phone would switch to the single companion core while the user is reading the Web page to reduce power consumption and the more powerful cores are not necessary. The approximation I was given was "40 to 60 percent power savings due to the companion core."

But the purpose of adding more cores is also to extend the capabilities and functionality of mobile devices. It enables more realistic, console-like gaming. Instead of predefined graphics, the graphics are now able to be simulated and dynamic. That said, when all four cores are firing at full force, your power consumption will soar through the roof. It's a pretty fair and obvious trade-off if you ask me.

Speaking solely in reference to the Tegra 3, NVIDIA has enabled two other features of the Tegra 3 chip, which also save power and are at the OEMs disposal: PRISM and DirectTouch. Essentially, PRISM (Pixels Rendering Intensity Saturation Modulation) is a technology that "twists" pixels as needed to reflect more natural light and reduce the need for so much backlighting. (That's at least what I gathered from the explanation given to me.) And DirectTouch uses the companion core to read touch signals and process them at 500MHz, versus using a touch controller. This increases responsiveness, uses less power and removes the touch controller from the equation, slicing $4 to $6 off of production costs.

Of course, all of this was given to me in a pitch that was clearly pro-Tegra 3 and pro-NVIDIA. But if we're to believe all NVIDIA has to say, quad-core technology will be full of benefits, from the Tegra 3 to Snapdragons and even OMAPs. The first quad-core tablet has already been quite a success, but the question of how well-received quad-core handsets will be still stands.

Quite honestly, I may hang back again and not buy a quad-core phone, like I did with dual-core phones, just to see how they stack up and how they perform (power consumption-wise) outside of a theoretical or lab environment. Eventually, we all will be buying quad-core phones. And sometime after that, those phones will be followed up by hexa-core processors ... and so on, and so forth. NVIDIA claimed that by 2014 mobile chipsets will have several more cores and will be at least 25 times more powerful than the existing Tegra 3. Hello, awesome mobile gaming!

If you're an Exynos fan, something else to consider is that they seem to be more focused on improving what they're already good at. Don't expect quad-core Exynos processors anytime soon.

What do you all have to say about quad-cores? Yay? Nay? Will you buy a quad-core phone when the time comes? Or are you content with dual-core for the time being? What about the thought of future hexa-core chips?

Image via NVIDIA