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Do mobile phones and tablets really need multi-core chips?

Mobile applications rarely take advantage of parallelism

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Multi-core processors for tablets and smartphones are being touted by chip maker Nvidia and others at the CES trade show, but some in the industry question their value.

Some of the latest mobile operating systems, such as Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango), aren't designed to support dual-core processors, analysts noted. At the same time, they said, most smartphone and tablet applications don't need and can't benefit from dual-core or quad-core processing power, except for some video and games.

Given that fact, Microsoft and its partner Nokia practically dismissed dual-core smartphones running Android and built by various makers, including Samsung and HTC.

To emphasise the point, Microsoft set up a challenge at CES where Windows Phone Evangelist Ben Randolph bet $100 that his Windows Phone, an HTC Titan, would operate faster than any other smartphone in running apps, searching the web and other functions. From about 20 challengers, Randolph said he lost just once, against an iPhone 4S, in the time it took both phones to send a tweet. He paid the winner in cash.

Randolph and Greg Sullivan, a Windows Phone senior product manager, said the focus of Windows Phone is on how it works best with users, not on the phone's processing speed. Windows Phone 7.5's marketing slogan, in fact, is "Put People First."

"Dual-core is much less critical to a phone, and most new smartphone users can't tell what it does," Sullivan said. "Is there software to take advantage of it? That's the question."

Sullivan said it's inevitable that Windows Phone and other mobile operating systems will advance to dual-core processors in coming years, just as many more tablets will advance to quad-core processors. Bloggers and reviewers insisted four cores did make a difference in the Asus Transformer Prime tablet, announced in November, because it provided better performance for simultaneously running multiple apps.

Still, Sullivan said dual-core and quad-core processors, so far, will primarily appeal to tech industry insiders and mobile device enthusiasts. "It's like the car hobby mentality of the guy who wants a dual overhead cam engine. But I'll argue that with a smartphone, users can't define what dual core is."

On the other hand, some tablets that were introduced on the value of dual-core, like the BlackBerry PlayBook, do zip through applications and downloads, said ABI analyst Kevin Burden.

"Quad-core on a tablet is not important now, but the question is where the technology is going?" Burden said. For all its other problems, the PlayBook is "snappy" in performance, he added.

The biggest drawback with faster processors on smartphones and tablets is going to be how quickly they drain battery power, something that's not entirely known on tablets such as a just-announced tablet from Asus that runs Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich) using a quad-core Tegra 3 processor from Nvidia.

"There are going to be tradeoffs with faster processors, such as battery life," Burden said.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said most applications today don't need a dual-core processor on a smartphone or a quad-core processor on a tablet. But he predicted that within a year, the developer community will build apps taking advantage of faster processor speeds.

At US mobile network Sprint, smartphones and tablets are being launched with multi-core processors, but there's a recognition that the network behind the device also needs to be fast. Sprint announced two smartphones that will run over its coming 4G LTE network, the Galaxy Nexus and LG Viper. Both have dual-core processors.

"We're always chasing the fastest technology, but it might be more important to us in the industry [than to consumers] since we all want to be at the front," said Ryan Sullivan a Sprint product development director.

Ryan Sullivan said that Sprint learned when it first deployed its WiMax network as a 4G technology that it wasn't enough to say the network was fast. "We had to tell them what they could do with 4G and that made it more real to people. So you can't just talk about speeds and feeds or fast processors, but what are the apps they use."


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