Asus Transformer Prime: Does quad-core really matter?

By JR Raphael (@jr_raphael)

Asus Transformer Prime Quad Core

This week's announcement of the Asus Transformer Prime marks the start of a new era for Android tablets. Aside from the Prime's sleek design and PC-like transformation potential, the product will be the first tablet to run on a quad-core processor -- specifically, the new Tegra 3 chip made by Nvidia.

Let's face it, though: For most folks, things like processor cores ultimately boil down to a bunch of gobbledygook geek speak. So what does having a quad-core tablet really mean from a user perspective, and will it make a significant difference in your day-to-day life?

Transformer Prime and the Quad-Core Advantage

Nvidia Tegra 3 Quad Core Processor

The short answer is that having a quad-core processor lets your tablet do more stuff simultaneously and more efficiently. Nvidia cites its new Tegra 3 processor as delivering up to five times the performance of its dual-core predecessor, the Tegra 2 -- the chip in many current high-end Android tablets, including the Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab, and original Asus Transformer. The Tegra 3's graphics processing unit is also said to be three times as fast as the previous model's.

More geek speak -- I know. So let's put this into real-world terms. Some things you'll notice when using a tablet with a quad-core processor:

  • Web pages will load faster. The browser can execute JavaScript code more quickly and handle multiple tabs better with the addition of the extra cores; some benchmarks suggest Web browsing performance is as much as 50 percent faster on a quad-core system vs. a dual-core device.

  • Multitasking will be smoother and more responsive. The extra cores in a chip like Nvidia's Tegra 3 let Android figure out which tasks need the most resources and assign computing power accordingly. With more cores to spread out the work, the system can keep up with high amounts of activity without stuttering or slowing down.

  • Resource-intensive apps will have better performance. Something like Words with Friends runs fine on any ol' system, more or less, but when you start getting into apps that handle tasks like photo and video editing and graphical gaming, a quad-core chip will allow for a higher level of performance. It'll also enable developers to create new kinds of resource-intensive games that simply wouldn't be able to run (or run well, anyway) on a less powerful processor.

Quad-Core Tablets In Action

That's all fine and dandy to discuss, but how 'bout an actual example? The video below, produced by Nvidia, shows side-by-side performance of a tablet running the new Tegra 3 chip compared to various dual-core systems. Nvidia's Tegra team tells me they used devices with comparable specs (aside from the chip, of course) to eliminate as many variables as possible. The devices on the left side of the screen are running either Tegra 2 chips or Qualcomm 1.5GHz dual-core chips; the devices on the right are running the new Tegra 3 quad-core processors.

And as for the quad-core gaming potential? This next video shows some of the advancements being made by developers to take advantage of the added cores:

Quad-Core Tablets: What About Battery Life?

The first thing most people ask when they hear about quad-core tablets is how all that added processing power will affect their device's battery life. In what seems to be a paradoxical twist, a quad-core processor actually runs at a lower frequency and tends to use less power than a dual-core equivalent.

Asus Transformer Nvidia Tegra 3 Quad Core

The reason? All those cores aren't just lighting up willy-nilly; instead, the system spreads out the workload and uses only the minimum amount of processing power needed at any given time. The Tegra 3 chip actually has five cores (confusing, I know), one of which is dedicated to handling low-frequency tasks like keeping the tablet humming in active-standby mode, playing music in the background, or playing a video. The four main cores, then, handle the heavier stuff, switching on and off automatically as they're needed.

Case in point: With the Transformer Prime, Asus is promising 12 hours of battery life -- and that's based on tests where the tablet was continuously playing 720p-quality video.

Quad-Core Tablets: The Bottom Line

Look, at this point, a quad-core tablet is a top-of-the-line luxury item. If you're a casual user who wants a tablet mainly for surfing the Web, checking email, and playing some basic games, a dual-core device will probably be fine for your needs. Pretty much every quality tablet on the market right now is dual-core; most of them have excellent performance for typical everyday use.

If you're a power user, though -- someone who does a lot of multitasking, heavy-duty gaming, or high-intensity application usage -- a quad-core unit might be something worth your while. You'll pay a premium for it, no doubt, but if technology is a passion and you like having the latest and greatest stuff, the benefits could be well worth the cost.

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The Asus Transformer Prime is scheduled to come out sometime next month; we'll likely see other quad-core tablets (and then phones) shortly thereafter. I'll be reviewing the Prime in much greater detail once Asus makes review units available, so I'll be able to give you more personal hands-on impressions of the performance then.

UPDATE: The full review is now online. Follow the link below:

Asus Transformer Prime: The Rolls-Royce of Android tablets 

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

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