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At the core of a handset

Smartphones have gotten smarter. Get to know the processors on which they function before buying yours

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have gotten smarter. Get to know the processors on which they function before buying yours.

Ramesh Vyas is having a tough time selecting a smartphone. Just when he thought all smartphones were equal, the being the only exception, he realised that some processors had more power (a 1GHz processor is faster than a 600MHz one). Now he’s being advised by his friends to buy a dual-core processor smartphone. He’s wondering what difference there is between a single-core processor mobile phone and a dual-core (there’s are plans for quad core ones too) handset.

If you have heard names like LG Optimus 2X, or Samsung Galaxy SII, you have already heard about cellphones with dual-core processors. More names will follow as the months go by. Meanwhile, names like Nvidia Tegra 2, Qualcomm Snapdragon and TI OMAP that are being bandied by the geeky types, are only adding to the confusion.

To begin with, smartphones are getting smarter by the day. They are audio and video players, have mobile web browsers, cameras and even HD camcorders. They may have projectors too (Apple has filed for a patent). To carry out the multi-functions, your cellphone needs a good processor. Just as a central processing unit or CPU is the brain of a computer, a processor thinks on behalf of your cellphone. It is also referred to as a system on a chip (SoC), since the battery takes up much space not leaving much room for different chipsets.

Most companies use a CPU based on a design from a company called ARM, and single core or dual core merely refers to the number of CPU cores. Having a dual-core processor in a smartphone, or tablet, implies that its operating system can manage intensive tasks parallelly. For instance, two 1GHz processors can be used in parallel to speed up performance, but the mobile software has to be optimised to take advantage of this processing power. Single-core processors, on the other hand, cannot parallel process like a dual-core processor since they have only one processor which can tackle one task or piece of information (known as a ‘thread’) at a time.

Meanwhile, the SoC can also have a gaming processor unit or GPU (eg. Nvidia Tegra 2), which loads web pages and makes playing games (even 3D ones) sheer pleasure. The SoC also has video encoders and decoders, and camera operation and audio playback capabilities. Some companies also incorporate a phone’s modem (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, 3G/4G, etc) onto the SoC. Dual-core processors also allow for improved battery life since single CPU cores, according to industry experts, require manufacturers to raise the voltage of the CPU, which consumes a lot of power.

Meanwhile, several chipset makers including Qualcomm, Nvidia and TI, have announced plans for quad-core processors. “But do we need so much processing power in cellphones?”, one may ask. The answer is simple: Did we not ask the same question to PC manufacturers?

Besides, having a dual-core processor allows for speedier, more efficient multitasking. Even a faster single-core processor will usually be trounced by a slower dual or quad-core. Smartphones don’t need to run intensive programs, but faster processing speeds up the whole experience, and increasingly CPU intensive 3D graphics and other hefty tasks are becoming more common.

Moreover, autostereoscopic 3D-enabled mobile handsets (type of 3D tech that does not require users to wear special glasses to view the content in 3D), will require more processing power. By 2012, 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.

Of course, the final point is whether or not users like Ramesh should buy a dual-core handset. Let’s put it this way. If you currently have a smartphone like an iPhone 4, Blackberry Torch, or Samsung Galaxy S, you need not panic. With 3G, they work pretty fast, and will satiate your surfing and other multitasking needs for at least a couple of years. But if you’re one of those who wants to be among the first to pocket a new technology, and have the budget to do so, then a dual-core handset is the way to go. But, then, remember — quad-core handsets are on the way.

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