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Dazzling Dual-Core Phones and Tablets

New processors are a big improvement, but it will take time for apps to take advantage.
January 13, 2011

Steady improvements in performance are a given in the computing industry, but sometimes there’s a big leap forward. One occurred in the world of mobile computing last week, when the first smart phones and tablet computers with dual-core processors were unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Game changer: The Acer Iconia can play high-performance 3-D multiplayer games thanks to a dual-core processor, a specialized graphics-processing unit, and a fast 4G connection.

The show-stealing Xoom tablet from Motorola, and also phones and tablets from Acer, HTC, and LG, all debuted with a new dual-core processor made by chip maker Nvidia. Competing microprocessor companies Marvell and Freescale Semiconductor also make dual-core chips for such devices.

A processor’s core is the crucial component that receives and executes instructions. A single-core processor can execute only one instruction at a time, while a chip with multiple cores can process more instructions at once.

A multicore chip offers advantages over a single-core chip running at a faster speed (measured as frequency). “Running a processor at a higher frequency means increased voltage, greater resistance, and so more heat produced,” explains Matt Wuebbling, a senior product manager working on Nvidia’s new Tegra 2 dual-core processor. The firm, a leading manufacturer of graphics-processing chips (GPUs) for the PC market, has added a scaled-down GPU to the Tegra 2 chip alongside the two processor cores.

“With this chip, games are completely different to what we think of as mobile games with cartoon graphics,” says Wuebbling. “There are realistic smoke and fog effects and light bursts.” Games with much more complex 3-D engines can be accommodated, because the intensive number crunching required can be shared between the processor’s two cores while the GPU turns the output data into graphics, he says.

Verizon Wireless and Nvidia demonstrated the newly announced Acer Iconia tablet with a Tegra 2 chip, playing a 3-D multiplayer game called Dungeon Defenders hosted on an AlienWare gaming laptop. “The game really pops on the tablet thanks to effects like complex reflections and realistic dust,” says Deepak Chadaga, of Verizon’s LTE Innovation Center in Waltham, Massachusetts. “That’s possible because we have dual cores and a GPU.”

Web browsing may seem less intensive than gaming, but it will also be significantly improved on multicore mobile gadgets, says Linley Gewnnap, principal analyst at microprocessor analysts the Linley Group. “Even the basic rendering of an html page can take several seconds,” he says. “Dual-core processors will better be able to keep up with the speed at which wireless networks can download pages.” Processing a Web page for display also involves handling many different components of a page at once. Nvidia reports that its Tegra 2 processor can load Web pages at least twice as fast as a processor of the same type with a single core.

While running flat out a dual core chip can use a lot of energy compared to a single core version, they can work more efficiently for many tasks. A single core chip working flat out uses 40 percent more energy than a Tegra 2 chip with two cores each running at half speed, says NVIDIA.

In future, dual-core mobile processors will help handheld devices display content in 3-D, following in the footsteps of Nintendo’s 3DS, says Robert Thompson, director of smart mobile devices at Freescale Semiconductor, whose dual-core processors will soon appear in tablet computers.

“3-D is filtering down quickly into tablets, and for 3-D graphics to be detailed or even high-definition, a single core probably won’t be enough,” says Thompson. Freescale has created a mobile processor with four cores aimed at tablets, as has rival Marvell, although no products featuring either of them is yet available.

All the same, tablets and phones with dual-core chips won’t be used to their full potential for six to nine months. Thompson says it will take this long for mobile apps and operating systems to be properly tweaked to take full advantage of multicore chips. Software needs to be redesigned to instruct a chip to process instructions in parallel, not sequentially, as mobile processors have done up to now.

Recent versions of Google’s Android operating system can use multiple cores, and Nvidia and other chip makers have been working with game and app developers to get their software ready for the launch of dual-core handheld gadgets.

Such efforts will help, says Gwenapp, as will the fact that many developers have experience of multicore programming from desktop machines. But it is still likely that early adopters of dual-core phones and tablets won’t find huge improvements to most apps. “Without the app software, you don’t see the improvement,” he says. “There has to be some time for all the software guys to accommodate.”

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