As the technology shuffle heats up between cell phone manufacturers and carriers, a technological arms race is in full effect. With the release of the iPhone 4S, Apple Inc. has joined the ranks of dual-core smartphones and suddenly set the bar higher for Android-based competitors. Handsets from Motorola, Samsung, and HTC have jumped on the 4G bandwagon to stay ahead of Apple’s 3G carrier speeds, but the time has come for another step forward: quad-core smartphones.
CES 2011 introduced dual-core phones and kicked off the rumors around quad-core tablets. By the time Mobile World Congress 2011 rolled around, quad-core tablets were all but expected in time for this year’s holiday shopping. No one knew at the time that the real disrupter would come from Amazon in the form of their low-buck Kindle Fire tablet. With CES 2012 right around the corner in January, quad-core tablets should be all the rage and we may even see one or two quad-core cell phones. In fact, Chinese manufacturer Meizu already announced their new MX phone, due out by the end of this year. Other than being a fairly clear copy of an iPhone 4, the device comes with one interesting option: an A9 quad-core chip from ARM. Only time will tell if the device makes it to market soon.
While the increased processing power would be great in a handheld, Ben Lang, executive editor of Carrypad.com, points out the clear issue of battery power. Four cores will drain the power quickly from a tiny cell phone battery. “You can bet that the major players in the market would love to be able to claim to have the ‘world’s first quad-core smartphone’, and you can bet that such prototypes have already been created, but battery life is a major hurdle,” says Lang. Tablets have larger batteries and can absorb that kind of blow more readily. Nvidia’s Kal-El quad-core processor boasts increased power efficiency over the current crop of dual-cores, but battery technology has a long way to go to catch up enough.
Jon Rettinger, president of TechnoBuffalo, expects a jump in quad-core device demonstrations at upcoming industry shows, but it may be mid-2012 at least before a commercially viable quad-core smartphone becomes available in the US. There were rumors that the new Google Nexus Prime was originally a quad-core device to be announced this week, but that the company pulled back to a dual-core late in the process. “The issues are likely two-fold,” speculates Rettinger. “The battery tech isn’t there yet, and Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) isn’t quite ready for quad-core.” He expects the battery issues to be addressed soon, though. “The Tesla Model S is a perfect example. It’s an electric car that can go 300 miles on battery power. Advancements are definitely being made.” Rettinger expects Apple to debut a quad-core A6 in the iPad 3 during the first quarter of 2012, with the next iPhone wielding the same processing power next summer.
One thing Rettinger and other analysts emphasize is that consumers shouldn’t get caught up in specifications so much. “Optimized software is the key,” Rettinger explains. Multi-core processors aren’t fully utilized by current operating systems, so there’s lots of catching up due for Android and iOS. When one does arrive, however, a solid quad-core, 4G device with a lapdoc may sound the death knell for netbooks and low-powered laptops. It will certainly make for the most powerful computing device to ever fit in a shirt pocket.