Tablets to be supercharged by quad-core chips

Some analysts warn that quad-core for tablets could be overkill and drain battery life

Just as tablets with dual-core processors start to hit shelves, chip makers are now shipping samples of quad-core chips that could make the devices even faster.

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Nvidia announced a new quad-core Tegra chip code-named Kal El, which the company claims is two times faster for Web browsing than the current dual-core Tegra 2 processor, which is used in tablets from Motorola, LG, Asus, Viewsonic and Toshiba. Qualcomm announced a new quad-core Snapdragon chip, which will offer speeds of up to 2.5GHz per core and consume 65 percent less power than current ARM-based CPU cores, according to a company statement.

Beyond running programs faster, the new chips will turn mobile devices into multimedia powerhouses. Nvidia's Kal-El is capable of playing 1440p video -- higher than the normal 1080p video resolution -- which the company claims is better than some graphics processors in PCs. Qualcomm's chips will include graphics cores that could bring stereoscopic 3D video to mobile devices.

The first mobile devices with Kal-El chips could come as soon as August and deliver up to 12 hours of battery life, said Ken Brown, an Nvidia spokesman. Qualcomm did not respond to requests for comment on when its chips would reach devices, but in the statement said test units of its new Snapdragon chips could start shipping in the second half of this year. The companies did not provide clock speeds for the processors.

The quad-core chips announced in Barcelona are based on the ARM architecture, as is one announced by Texas Instruments last week.

The use of these chips is a sign that smartphones and tablets are trying to grow up and be more PC-like, said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates.

Nevertheless, quad-core chips could be overkill as use of all cores could drain battery quickly, just as in laptops, Gold said. High-definition graphics applications are notoriously power-hungry, and Nvidia's Kal El chip deploys many graphics cores that could contribute to the battery drain, Gold said.

"When you are deploying four cores and 12 [graphics] cores, you're sucking battery. Will users be willing to put up with that?" Gold said.

Average users who mostly browse the Web and make phone calls will be satisfied with mobile devices with dual-core processors. Users who want blazing performance may opt for quad-core chips, but may have to prepare to keep devices plugged in all day, Gold said.

The success of quad-core chips in mobile devices will also depend on the number of applications that take advantage of all processing cores, Gold said. Mobile applications are still being written for single- and dual-core processors, and developers will need to change the way they write applications so processing is equally distributed across multiple cores, Gold said.

There clearly is a demand for quad-core mobile chips, otherwise chip makers would not offer such products, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

The amount of power drawn by quad-core chips is a concern, but there's a lot of experimentation going on around mobile devices, McCarron said. Dual-core chips may suffice for devices like smartphones and tablets, but quad-core processors could be relevant for handheld gaming devices or gaming tablets.

For example, Sony's upcoming NGP handheld gaming console will run on a quad-core chip based on the ARM Cortex-A9 processor design.

A lot of processing power on mobile devices comes from user interface tasks such as orientation of the screen, which is enough for dual-core processors, McCarron said. But newer chip designs from Intel and ARM have the ability to shut down cores that are not in use, so there isn't a significant penalty for having extra cores. However, tasks using all cores could drain battery, he said.

But the market for mobile devices is still evolving, McCarron said. There could be some devices that demand performance, and companies are building out offerings to include chips that deliver maximum performance.

"It underscores how rapidly the [mobile] segment is developing," McCarron said.

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