Does a tablet really need eight cores?

Does a tablet really need eight cores?

Summary: The core wars have reached a détente on the PC, but mobile is another matter. Some smartphones and tablets are already packing four cores, but chipmakers apparently aren’t stopping there.

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TOPICS: Processors
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The core wars have reached a détente on the PC with most mainstream laptops still relying on dual-core processors. But mobile is another matter. Some high-end smartphones and tablets are already packing four cores, but chipmakers apparently aren’t stopping there.

MediaTek, a Taiwan-based company which has recently grown to become one of the world's largest mobile chip suppliers, is working on an eight-core processor, according to local reports. The MT6599, will supposedly be manufactured by TSMC on an advanced 28nm process and will first appear in a ZTE smartphone in the second half of 2013. That would be a big leap for MediaTek; currently its most advanced chip is the MT6577, a dual-core (1GHz Cortex-A9) processor designed for sub-$200 Android 4.0 smartphones. A quad-core and/or eight-core processor would presumably help MediaTek get into high-end devices including tablets.

Meanwhile Samsung is expected to present details of its own eight-core system-on-chip (SoC) at a chip conference early next year. The SoC reportedly includes two 28nm quad-core clusters, a high-performance one based on the Cortex-A15 and a low-power one based on the Cortex-A7. This seems more feasible--Samsung has been expected to be one of the first to release a chip based on this ARM big-LITLE architecture and it already supplies a quad-core Cortex-A9, the Exynos 4, . (At the same conference, China's Longsoon will unveil its eight-core Godson-3B1500, manufactured on a 32nm process and based on the MIPS architecture, but this is designed for PCs and servers.)

By turning off power-hungry cores when they aren’t needed, technologies such as the companion core in Nvidia's Tegra quad-core and ARM's big.LITTLE will make multi-core work better in mobile devices. But it still isn’t clear that tablets, or even PCs, really need so many CPU cores, or that the software is ready to take advantage of it. After all the fourth-generation iPad's A6X--one of the most powerful mobile processors around--has only a dual-core processor (Apple instead devoted most of the die to graphics). Intel is still shipping single-core Atoms for smartphones and dual-cores for Windows 8 tablets (there are rumors that it will stick with its 22nm dual-cores through all of next year), though this is a different architecture.

Of course, lots of people said the same thing about quad-core mobile processors a year ago, and today there are loads of devices using Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 Pro, Samsung's Exynos 4 Quad and Tegra 3 (including the Microsoft Surface tablets). I'm still not sure eight full-power cores makes much sense, but by this time next year I wouldn’t be surprised to see lots of "heterogeneous" chips that have a powerful quad-core CPU plus one or two lightweight cores for basic tasks.

Topic: Processors

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14 comments
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  • If Apple does it it is revolutionary

    If anyone else does it, specs don't matter.

    Oh, relax, I'm kidding...sort of.
    redhaven
    • Moden C#/Java environment demand multicore systems

      Not necessarily 8 cores but 2/4 cores definitely come in handy for their garbage collectors to run more smoothly in the background.
      LBiege
      • Re: ...for their garbage collectors to run more smoothly in the background.

        Android can do that on one core, through something called "preemptive multitasking". It's a standard feature of the Linux kernel. Linux has long been known to run well on less hardware than Windows. That's why Android devices are still usable with a single core, while Windows Phone 8 is not.
        ldo17
  • Does a tablet really need eight cores?

    if its running linux/android then yes to get decent performance out of it.
    Loverock Davidson-
    • The Talkback idiot LD is here posting the usual ignorant rubbish

      My single core Nook Color running Jelly Bean (Linux) does not need 2 secs to rotate, like the quad core Surface does. How do you explain that?

      Oh, and did you hear? The sales of tablets, which you have been calling a "fad" since the iPad came out, are about to overtake notebook sales.

      Not bad for a "fad" eh?
      D.T.Long
  • Does a tablet really need eight cores?

    Does a tablet really need eight cores? Of course not. Also, 640K ought to be enough for anybody.
    dsf3g
  • Misleading blog

    This is the ARM bigLITTLE architecture. Only 4 cores will be active at any one time. The architecture switches seamlessly between the four A15 and the four A7 cores, depending on the need for processing power.

    It is therefore really only a quad core architecture, but I guess ARM figured it is better to switch to more efficient low power cores, rather than throttling the clock speed, like Intel does.

    Please do your homework before blogging.
    D.T.Long
  • RE: Does a tablet really need eight cores?

    Yes. Any other questions?
    AnalogJoystick
  • Do we need 8 cores on tablets?

    Absolutely. The biggest reason is the huge number of augmented reality applications coming over the next few years. Tablets have high definition cameras on them now. They will need to display the high definition output from the camera, while simultaneously overlaying full resolution animations, notations, translations, and more in real time with alpha channels. Any time you are processing high definition video streams, more cores are better. Within 5 years, we will be using augmented reality apps as much as we use GPS navigation now.

    Another great reason is better 3-D gaming. With the Retina display, you're pushing a LOT of pixels. With more cores, you can offload some of the 3-D calculations. Additional cores could also be used to do special effects like fog or rain.

    The question is whether the device you are describing can really be considered an 8 core device, since only 4 can ever be active at any given time. In my mind, it's not 8 cores. I'd love to see real 8 core procs on my tablets one day, though.
    BillDem
    • You don't use CPU cores for 3D calculations.

      You don't use CPU cores for 3D calculations. You use GPU cores. Which are often far more numerous than CPU cores, and are specialized for the task of 3D calculations.
      CobraA1
  • Oh heck...

    It's the digital camera megapixel race again, along with highest Rez screen, fastest supercar/motor yacht/aeroplane etc etc...til the end of time.
    Speeds and feeds are so...anal.
    frogspaw
  • When the mean becomes the purpose...

    It may requires more power, but it is not necessary.
    What matters is if the hardware allows the tablet to behave as it is supposed to do : smoothly, friendly, quickly.
    Unfortunately, experience shows that it is not necessarily happening with more powerful hardware. Latest exemple is the MS Surface that is awfully slow to move from portrait to landscape while the Ipad1 was doing that perfectly with older hardware.

    Too many manufacturers, starting with Samsung, focus on their HW specs for advertizing. In that case, the more cores you have, the better you look versus the competitors.

    Reducing the tablet experience to the cores is a mistake.
    SebFR
  • One possibility ... though not likely to be released at a reasonable cost

    Using (say) 4 cores to decode PCoIP would turn a tablet into a monster remote access device.
    I doubt though that Teradici will offer it at a reasonable price: more likely it will require massive VMware infrastructure. (Same goes for RemoteFX which will require massive MSFT infrastructure.)
    jacksonjohn
  • I had no idea there was ever a 'war' about the number of cores...

    Still, if people want more power per core, go Intel.

    If you want less power, either buy a desktop PC made in 1999 or get a tablet touch toy.
    HypnoToad72