Ask any tech head these days about one feature they are most looking forward to in their next mobile phone and you’ll most definitely hear “quad-core”. Nvidia started this buzz in the second half of 2011, around the time of Computex 2011 with their Tegra 3 SoC (System on Chip). Later, we heard of Samsung jumping on board as well with their Exynos 5450 announcement and now, a little more than a week away from MWC, the buzz has reached fever pitch. Having more cores is certainly not a bad thing. Everyone wants a faster phone that they can do a lot more with, but I don’t think quad-core is the answer, especially for mobile phones, right now.
Having cutting edge hardware is of no use until the software or Operating System (OS) can utilize it optimally and right now, hardware seems to be developing at a much faster rate, while software plays catch up. We’ve seen this happen in other segments of technology as well, like gaming, for instance. There was a time when PC games were really demanding and investing in a dual-GPU setup made sense, but today, due to everything going multi-platform, you can easily get away with a two year old graphics card without having to compromise too much. There’s a lot of buzz about how Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) is going to be a game changer, but will it be? As it turns out, it’s not that different from Honeycomb, just better optimized, a Honeycomb 2.0, if you will. Dianne Hackborn, an engineer on Google’s Android framework, gives us a clearer insight into how Android uses hardware acceleration, right from v1.0 and what has changed over the subsequent releases. ICS is better optimised, for sure, but whether it will be able to utilize more than two cores optimally, is yet to be seen. Even though Honeycomb was “fully” hardware accelerated, Tegra 2 just couldn’t translate all that power it had in to the real world, which translated into sluggish performance. While Tegra 3 fixes some of these failings, putting it in a phone just does not make sense. To start off with, it’s still using the 40nm fabrication, which doesn’t exactly sip power. You’ll need a really chunky battery for this, which could explain why all Tegra 3 phones have large screens, so the phones have to be made bigger to accommodate the larger battery, while keeping it slim.
Don't give in to the hype
Let’s not forget the elephant in the room, though, the battery life. More processing power automatically translates into more power hungry devices, which impacts battery life quite badly. Even if the new quad-core SoCs have the ability to put their cores in idle mode, it’s still consuming a small amount of power all the time, even if you aren’t using them. Android users struggle, as it is to get a full day’s worth of heavy usage on single-core phones, so don’t get me started on quad-cores. Another issue we shouldn’t ignore is apps. About 90 percent of the apps, you’ll ever use on a smartphone work absolutely fine on a 1GHz single-core CPU. It’s just a handful of games (mostly from Nvidia) or specialized apps that actually take advantage of two cores. Realistically, you will very seldom be using these apps when you’re travelling, since these drain the battery like crazy, so your only option is to not use it, which defeats the whole purpose of having a multi-core phone.
I am, personally very happy with my Galaxy S. Everything that I ever need or use on a daily basis runs absolutely smooth and with strong support from the modding community, I need not rely on Samsung to bring ICS officially (which they aren’t). The only time I wished I had an extra core is when using GTalk, music and a browser at the same time, which is when the phone starts to struggle a bit. That and the fact that I can’t play GTA III, really annoys me. But other than these two things, I have never felt the need or the urge to buy a faster phone.
Until the software and apps are optimized for multi-core devices, it doesn’t make sense for the average joe to invest in a quad-core phone, right now. Perhaps a couple of years down the line, it would, but right now, it’s more of a marketing hype, than anything else. Give me a quad-core tablet and I’ll be a happy camper, but not a phone, at least not yet. The bottom line here is, don’t be in a hurry to chuck out your old phone (unless it’s like, really, really old) for quad-core beasts arriving just yet. If you have to, then keep an eye out on existing dual-core phones that are sure to get some nasty price cuts in the coming weeks.