Dual-core smartphones: The next mobile arms race

But what will dual cores do for your smartphone apps?
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor

But what will dual cores do for your smartphone apps?

Get ready: your smartphone is about to get a lot smarter. 2011 promises to be the year of dual-core smartphones - and may even usher in the age of the quad-core mobile.

Many of last year's top smartphones packed a 1GHz processor - devices such as Apple's iPhone 4, HTC's Desire HD and the Windows Phone 7 handsets that arrived towards the back end of 2010, with Microsoft stipulating 1GHz as a minimum requirement for its OS.

And then in December, mobile maker LG announced what it described as the world's first dual-core smartphone: the LG Optimus 2X.

The 2X packs an Nvidia Tegra 2 1GHz processor - a dual-core system-on-a-chip based on ARM architecture. The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted the Tegra chip still promises 1GHz of processing power - so why all the fuss?

What a dual-core chip does

Dual-core chips enable more power to be squeezed out of the processor because the chips contain two 1GHz cores - meaning there are two 1GHz processors that can be used in parallel to speed up performance, provided the mobile software has been optimised to take advantage of the parallel processing power. It's not as simple as saying a dual-core processor is twice as fast as a single-core processor, but dual-core chips should enable a noticeable speed and performance hike, particularly when it comes to multitasking.

LG Optimus 2X: First dual-core smartphone

LG's Optimus 2X, above, may look like any other top of the line touchscreen smartphone but it sports a dual-core processor
(Photo credit: LG)

LG claims the Optimus 2X, which is heading for UK shops next month, will give users faster web browsing and quicker response times when multitasking. And it's no longer the only dual-core offering in mobile town.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week, Motorola announced a pair of dual-core smartphones that would be coming soon: the Motorola Atrix, due in the UK in Q2 this year, and the Droid Bionic. Various tablet PCs were also shown off packing dual-core chips.

"In the same way that 1GHz was the standard for top of the range smartphones in 2010, every top-end device in 2011 is likely to have a dual-core processor," predicted Nick Dillon, analyst at Ovum. "We may even see the first quad-core chipsets emerging in handsets by the end of the year."

What dual-core mobile phones mean for you

While the advent of dual-core smartphones means the bar has definitely been raised for players of specs-sheet top trumps, Dillon reckons multicore mobile chips are more technology evolution than big bang transformation - supporting an incremental performance boost rather than unlocking a raft of radical new functionality.

"This is the natural evolution of processors, like in the PC market - this is Moore's Law moving on - leading to things getting faster and more efficient," he said. "It's not really going to enable anything dramatically different - it's going to be an incremental performance improvement."

"1GHz processors were the tipping point for smartphones - we've almost gone beyond the point where it really makes any difference," Dillon added. "It's just the onward march of technology."

By adding multicore chips to devices, mobile makers are hoping to convince consumers to keep on upgrading to the latest shiny handset, added Ian Fogg, principal analyst at Forrester Research. "Handset makers need to have next-generation features to persuade consumers to continue to spend money to get a top-line device - rather than saying a mid-range smartphone is good enough," he said. "There is a continual arms race to add new features."

A device such as Google's Nexus S - the most cutting-edge Android smartphone when it was announced late last year - is already at risk of looking outmoded when compared to the new dual-core Android handsets, said Fogg. He added that even Apple's iPhone 4 - a single-core smartphone - starts to look dated from a specs point of view, yet not necessarily when it comes to the integration of its hardware and software. In other words, it's not the hardware but what you do with it that counts.

"Where the iPhone 4 is competitive is because the software and the apps, particularly the games, are taking full advantage of all the hardware abilities of the iPhone 4 - the graphics and the processor and the memory and everything else," said Fogg. "It may take some time for the first dual-core phones - most likely on Android - to gain that advantage."

Fogg added: "Consumers care about the overall experience. They care about the software, the overall package. What can it do for me, how good are the games, how good is the video playback, how good is the camera? And really, dual-core is an enabler of all of those things - but it isn't sufficient in its own right to create a compelling environment."

Ovum's Dillon said apps that take full advantage of dual-core hardware are likely to emerge in time. "People will create apps that will start to push the boundaries - I imagine gaming is probably the most interesting area where you're likely to make the most of these performance upgrades. You might see more complicated graphics in gaming and more advanced games in that respect," he said. "But in terms of other applications, there's nothing that demanding beyond the 1GHz threshold at the moment."

Multicore's 3D boost?

One next-gen technology that could, in theory, be given a boost by multicore hardware is autostereoscopic 3D-enabled mobile handsets - a type of 3D tech that does not require users to wear special glasses to view the content. By 2012, analyst house In-Stat predicts 3D-enabled smartphones will account for almost half (45 per cent) of all 3D-enabled mobile devices shipments, with handheld games consoles making up the lion's share of portable 3D deployments.

Asked whether multicore smartphones could boost the prospects of 3D-enabled smartphones, Ovum's Dillon said 3D would technically benefit from multicore chips in the hardware, being as it is a processor-intensive activity, but he said the tech is more likely to be constrained by lack of consumer demand, rather than underpowered hardware. Even with multicore chip tech in place, there's no guarantee this would...

... boost consumer demand for 3D and thus encourage mobile makers to add 3D to handsets, he added.

Existing features in today's top of the line smartphones that should get a performance boost from dual-core chips include HD video recording and playback, according to Forrester's Fogg.

"Much more potent smartphones will arrive in 2011 capable of HD video playback and HD video recording - which were trends we saw arrive in 2010 - but what dual-core will do though, it will turn those abilities to do HD video, to do great console-quality gaming and make them even more potent," he said. "It will also enable these phones to do those things while doing something else."

Smartphones as your personal hub

Using smartphones as a hub for wireless streaming of media to other devices such as TVs also gets a boost from dual-core, said Fogg. Apple already enables iPhone, iPad and iPod touch users to do this with an Apple TV or Airport Express using its AirPlay software.

"Smartphones will be increasingly used as a personal hub where video and other content sits on the device," Fogg told silicon.com. With multitasking abilities boosted by dual-core chips, streaming media from a smartphone becomes more desirable as the phone can still function well as a telephone, web browser and emailer, even while it's being used as a playback hub.

"There it becomes critically important to have some power behind it - if you're streaming HD video from the phone to a TV or to a TV set-top box, you still want to be able to make and receive phone calls and you still want to be able to read email and use the other functions on the device," said Fogg.

Multicore hardware has been gracing the insides of desktop PCs and laptops for years, so the arrival of dual-core smartphones might suggest the two device types are well and truly on the road to convergence - with mobile users trading in their laptops and using dual-core smartphones instead.

Dual-core smartphones versus laptops

Although the underlying architecture of mobile and desktop devices remains distinct - the more powerful category, PCs and laptops, are based on Intel's x86 architecture, while most smartphones and tablets are based on the more energy-efficient but lower powered ARM architecture - the convergence theme got a boost last week when Microsoft demoed a full version of its Windows OS running on ARM chips at CES.

"We're entering a new generation where you'll be able to use Windows from the small screen to the biggest screens," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. "Windows PCs will continue to adapt and evolve, and Windows will be everywhere on every kind of device without compromise."

Adding even more fuel to the convergence fire is Motorola's dual-core Atrix - a smartphone which includes a feature called Webtop that enables the handset to offer a desktop PC-style experience when it is plugged into a dedicated dock or connected to an HDTV. Users can then plug in a keyboard and mouse and turn the erstwhile handset into a virtual laptop, complete with desktop-style UI.

Motorola Atrix laptop dock

The Motorola Atrix laptop dock suggests laptops and smartphones are colliding - if not converging
(Photo credit: Motorola)

Developments such as these might suggest convergence is already happening, but Forrester's Fogg is not convinced Motorola's smartphone-turned-laptop is anything more than an interesting experiment in functionality overlap. "That dock combination was very interesting but it looks very much like an experiment," he said. "The weight of the dock will limit its adoption in reality - because it's big and heavy so you may as well carry around a netbook or a laptop.

"There are certainly overlaps in the abilities of the different devices - smartphones and laptops and tablets and so forth. But I don't think in the short to medium term there will be any large-scale cannibalisation of laptops by smartphones," he added. "The device characteristics are too different, the form factors are too different."

Ovum's Dillon added that while some mobile users could technically go smartphone-only, others will continue to require more powerful hardware - even than can be found in dual-core handsets and tablets.

"They are still different devices, still different use cases," he said. "If you're doing a lot of typing... or using really processor-intensive apps like video editing and graphic design work you're still going to need the more powerful software and hardware you have in a laptop.

"Whereas if someone is just primarily browsing on the web and checking their emails maybe a large smartphone or a tablet would suit them fine and they could ditch their laptop... It depends what kind of user you are."

Convergence or not, smartphones are certainly influencing other product categories and markets - be they tablets, portable media players, ebooks or even full-fat desktop operating systems such as Windows, noted Forrester's Fogg.

"We're seeing the tablet market... becoming a successful product category and the tablet is doing that basically based on smartphone software and smartphone hardware," he said. "We're seeing the iPhone App Store model being exported onto the Macintosh. We're seeing innovation in smartphones rippling out into adjacent product categories. I think this is not so much convergence but it is the success of the smartphone in disrupting other product categories."

Want more on dual-core devices? Check out the following links:

Photos: Motorola dual-core smartphone coming to UK

Photos: LG unveils Optimus 2X dual-core smartphone

Photos: The gadgets of CES 2011

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