Do mobile devices really need multi-core chips?

Today's mobile apps don't benefit from dual-core or quad-core processing power

Multi-core processors for tablets and smartphones are being touted by chip maker Nvidia and others at the CES trade show, but some in the industry question their value.

Some of the latest mobile operating systems, such as Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango), aren't designed to support dual-core processors, analysts noted. At the same time, they said, most smartphone and tablet applications don't need and can't benefit from dual-core or quad-core processing power, except for some video and games.

Given that fact, Microsoft and its partner Nokia practically dismissed dual-core smartphones that are running Android and are built by various makers, including Samsung and HTC.

To emphasize the point, Microsoft set up a challenge at CES where Windows Phone Evangelist Ben Randolph bet $100 that his Windows Phone, an HTC Titan, would operate faster than any other smartphone in running apps, searching the Web and other functions.

From about 20 challengers, Randolph said he lost just once, against an iPhone 4S, in the time it took both phones to send a tweet. He paid the winner in cash.

Randolph and Greg Sullivan, a Windows Phone senior product manager, said the focus of Windows Phone is on how it works best with users, not on the phone's processing speed. Windows Phone 7.5's marketing slogan, in fact, is "Put People First."

"Dual-core is much less critical to a phone, and most new smartphone users can't tell what it does," Sullivan said in an interview. "Is there software to take advantage of it? That's the question."

Sullivan said it's inevitable that Windows Phone and other mobile operating systems will advance to dual-core processors in coming years, just as many more tablets will advance to quad-core processors. Bloggers and reviewers, including JR Raphael at Computerworld, said quad core did matter in the Asus Transformer Prime tablet, announced in November, because it provided better performance for simultaneously running multiple apps.

Still, Sullivan said dual-core and quad-core processors, so far, will primarily appeal to tech industry insiders and mobile device enthusiasts. "It's like the car hobby mentality of the guy who wants a dual overhead cam engine. But I'll argue that with a smartphone, users can't define what dual-core is."

On the other hand, some tablets that were introduced on the value of dual-core, like the BlackBerry PlayBook, do zip through applications and downloads, said ABI analyst Kevin Burden.

"Quad-core on a tablet is not important now, but the question is where the technology is going," Burden said. For all its other problems, the PlayBook is "snappy" in performance, he added.

The biggest drawback with faster processors on smartphones and tablets is going to be how quickly they drain battery power, something that's not entirely known on tablets such as a just-announced $249 7-in. tablet from Asustek, the Asus ME370T, that runs Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich) using a quad-core Tegra 3 processor from Nvidia.

Asus ME370T
The Asus ME370T tablet has a quad-core Tegra 3 processor.
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