Intel working on 48-core chip for smartphones, tablets

A smartphone with 48 cores could change our concept of what it is and what it does

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"You move to a massive multi-core model and you'll have massive multi-tasking," he said. "You can have some big apps running and nothing will steal performance from each other. You get that huge range of performance across the spectrum and you get the benefits of things you can't even run on a PC now. Plus you'd get a potential low battery drain."

Enderle also pointed out that running so many cores would enable the phone to scale way down when it's just sitting in someone's purse or pocket and then scale well up when it's being used.

One issue the researchers are running into, however, is making sure there is software for small mobile devices that can take advantage of so many cores.

"This is a more limiting factor," said Herrero. "We need to modify how operating systems and apps are developed, making them far more parallel. Now, [having] cores doesn't matter if I can't take advantage of it."

Enderle agreed that it's going to be critical to make sure the software is keeping up with the advances in the hardware.

"There aren't many apps now to light up eight cores, let alone lighting up 48," he said. "Even on the PC now, it's really unusual in an 8-core machine to light up more than six cores. Writing for massive multi-core... Well, we haven't even really started to do that yet."

Moorhead, though, has faith that by the time the hardware is ready, the software will be, too.

"Five to 10 years is somewhat of an eternity in technology time," he said. "If we're going to have this technology in five to 10 years, [the smartphone] won't have just one camera. It would have two to three cameras that are always on. It could build a three-dimensional map of what it's looking at and do object recognition. You could finally do things that take way too much processing power today."

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, said there simply is never a shortage of demand for processing power.

And in 10 years, when a 48-core smartphone or tablet chip could be ready for market, devices likely will be in need of that boost.

"I suspect in 10 years, the devices we carry will be continually using any information available to them to make better decisions," said Kerravala. "So a continuous stream of location, identity, ad-driven information and presence status will all continually be calculated to help us do the stuff we do better and faster. And I would think you'll need multi-core to do that in 10 years. Whether it's 36 or 48, who knows."

Moorhead also projected that with that many cores and smarter software, our smartphones could someday be our main computers.

"My one compute device is in my hand and when I walk into my office, it automatically and wireless connects to my 30-inch display," he explained. "I have touch, a keybord, a mouse and voice to interact with it... It changes the whole concept of what it is and what it can do."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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