Dual-core smartphones on the horizon

Smartphones are on the verge of becoming more powerful, with chip makers readying dual-core chips that could accelerate multimedia and application performance on handheld devices.

Most smartphones are only capable of 720p video and come with processors touching speeds of around 1GHz, but users are demanding more performance, analysts said. A new generation of dual-core processors could allow users to watch full 1080p high-definition video and run more demanding applications.

Phone makers haven’t officially announced plans to put dual-core chips in smartphones, but the chip makers are getting ready. Qualcomm has already shipped its first dual-core processor, the MSM8660, and is due to start sampling a faster dual-core chip, the QSD8672, later this year. Texas Instruments is scheduled to ship a dual-core chip, the OMAP4430, later this year, and it could reach devices early next year.

People are running demanding applications on smartphones that require more computational power, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst of Insight 64. For example, Apple’s FaceTime video-conferencing application demands a lot of performance with multiple video streams and picture-in-picture capabilities. As video images move to higher resolutions and video-calling capabilities reach more smartphones, devices will need faster processors.

Breaking up application execution over two processing cores will allow users to do more with smartphones while preserving battery life, Brookwood said. TI and Qualcomm said smartphones with their new dual-core chips will be able to render Web pages and video faster, and play back 1080p high-definition video.

“This benefit allows for far more concurrency in applications. You’ve got an additional processor to handle background tasks, running multiple applications or updating multiple web pages simultaneously,” said Robert Tolbert , director of product management for the OMAP smart phone business at TI.

An alternative would be to speed up a single-core processor by ratcheting up the clock speed, which could lead to excess heat dissipation and battery drain, Brookwood said. Adding an additional core would be a more power-efficient way to boost chip performance.

“[Processors] typically require more power … as you increase clock speed. If you keep the frequency lower, you can save enough power to drive two cores at a lower frequency,” Brookwood said.

However, a big challenge is to make multiple cores as power efficient as possible without asking the user to pay a penalty in terms of battery consumption, Tolbert said.

“Dual-core doesn’t necessarily bring power reduction since you are exercising more silicon area with two processors versus one processor,” Tolbert said.

To tackle that issue, TI and Qualcomm are bringing unique power management capabilities to manage processing over multiple cores. The companies are introducing features to dynamically switch cores on and off. For example, depending on the task, one CPU core will be able operate at full speed, while the other could be clocked down to idle.

Smartphones are treading the path of laptops and desktops, which already include multicore chips. The first multicore processors were implemented in IBM’s Power4 server chips, but the trend trickled down to PCs when chip makers like Intel and Advanced Micro Devices reverted to adding cores to microprocessors.

But the challenges of developing multicore processors are more taxing on smartphone chip makers because of the smaller device sizes.

“The size, power and thermal constraints put in place by the end equipment are more relaxed in a PC than in a smartphone,” Tolbert said.

TI’s OMAP4430 is based on Arm’s Cortex-A9 processor design and will run at a speed of around 1GHz. The chip is in the final stages of development and qualification, the company said.

Qualcomm said devices with the MSM8660, which runs at 1.2GHz, are expected by the first quarter of next year, and potentially as early as the end of this year. The faster QSD8672, which runs at 1.5GHz, will start sampling by the end of 2010 and reach devices next year.

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