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Processors: Dual Core, Quad Core and the Microprocessor

Snapdragon-800

When smartphones moved from single core processors to  dual core processors in 2011, owners of these new dual core smartphones felt a dramatic improvement in performance. Having a dual core central processing unit (CPU) means that one of the processor’s core can work on one task, while the other core works on a different task. Basically, one core can run the operating system, while the other core can run the app.

Having a dual core CPU can also improve performance by splitting one task breaking the task into two smaller processes, and assign each process to one CPU. This results in work being done in parallel, hence completed sooner.

Going to the quad core yielded a less spectacular change in terms of the perceived increase in performance. Apps will have to be coded to actually take advantage of the third and fourth core. Android smartphones are now almost all migrating to multi-core processors. You will find quad core Androids starting at as low as US$80. Most other Android phones have dual core processors. Because of this, you may find more developers who will code their apps to take advantage of the two additional cores. Basically, the hardware has to be available before the software will support it.

In many cases, more than two cores will yield no benefits. For many apps, there really is no point to breaking up the task into different process units. If all you are going to do with your phone is run around in a maze or through obstacles, there is no advantage to dividing the work performed by the CPU over several cores. For games, it is really the graphics processor which does the heavy lifting, and not the CPU.  How much of an advantage quad core processing and beyond will bring depends largely on whether today’s smartphones will be used to perform more complex tasks in the future.

As an alternative to adding more cores, you are now also seeing the addition of microcontrollers. A microcontroller is a separate low power CPU. These microcontrollers  are designed to be able to handle simpler less intensive tasks. Doing so allows you to free up the main CPU from some of its workload. At the same time, these low power CPU’s consume less power.

You will see this technology on the Texas Instruments OMAP version of the BlackBerry Z10, which uses two 266 MHz ARM Cortex-M3 microcontrollers in addition to its dual core 1.5 GHz GHz ARM Cortex-A9 processor. I am not really sure if the BlackBerry 10 operating system actually takes advantage of these microcontrollers optimally because the Qualcomm version of the BlackBerry Z10 does not have microcontrollers. I do get the impression that the buttonless BlackBerry Z10 might use one of these microcontrollers to monitor for touch screen input when the screen is off in the TI OMAP version.

On the other hand, the Motorola Moto X uses a pair of Texas Instruments microcontrollers very efficiently. One is used to listen to voice commands, the other to power the touchscreen while the phone is on sleep mode for the Active Notifications function. Apple iPhone 5S also uses a microcontroller, called the M7, which appears to be designed to continuously measure motion data with the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass. One use of this is to allow the iPhone 5S to run fitness apps more efficiently.

The way forward is more cores. Just do not expect immediate benefit. Apps are coded to run on older technology. Early adopters have to wait the longest to benefit from new technology. Hardware manufacturers have to seed the field with the latest technology, and the software will follow.

Now, do not read this the wrong way. I am not saying that you should not buy a quad core smartphone. A top of the line quad core like the LG G2, Samsung Galaxy S4 or HTC One will not really cost you more than a top of the line dual core phone like the Apple iPhone 5S, BlackBerry Z30 or Nokia Lumia 1020. But once you start going down the line to mid-range and entry level phones, other features, like amount of RAM, camera quality or a better graphics processing unit, are things you should look for first, and not prioritize paying for a third and fourth core.

Image Credit: Qualcomm