Duncan Jefferies
27/02/2012 20:01 | By Duncan Jefferies, contributor, MSN Tech & Gadgets

Quad-core smartphones - what does it mean?

Quad-core tablets and mobile phones might sound great, but what does it actually mean and what difference does it make? Read on to find out.

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HTC One X (© ALBERT GEA; Reuters)

What does 'quad-core' mean?

As you might expect given the name, quad-core refers to a type of processor, often a central processing unit (CPU), with four individual cores that work together as a whole. The CPU is rather like your computer or mobile device's brain, a chip that performs complex calculations every fraction of second. Multi-core chips can split tasks between the cores and work on them simultaneously, rather like one person working out what 28 x 31 equals while someone else is calculating the square root of 54.

Twenty-eight multiplied by 31, that's...um...oh, forget it. So how will a quad-core chip improve my mobile or tablet then?

Well, one of the biggest benefits of a multi-core processor is improved multi-tasking while you're using your device. In other words, you'll be able to run more apps simultaneously without any crippling slow down. As each core can perform independently of the others, a quad-core processor can assign a different one to each of the things you're doing - say downloading an app while watching a movie - rather than piling all the pressure onto a single processor.

Right, got you...is that it?

No. There's more. Multi-threaded applications that are designed to run tasks simultaneously and independently on separate cores will benefit from the new chips, thus improving the overall experience for the user. In a video game, for example, one core might handle the graphics while another handles enemy AI.

Sounds great, which means there must be a catch.

No flies on you, are there? Yes, there is indeed a catch: most apps and mobile operating systems aren't currently designed to take full advantage of quad-core processors, and therefore the difference in performance should you run said app or operating system on a single, dual or quad-core device will be negligible.


Don't look so sad. Once quad-core devices take hold, more of apps will be designed to take advantage of them. But in the short-term, mobile hardware seems to speeding ahead at a frightening pace, with mobile software left playing catch-up.

What quad-core devices are on the horizon then?

The starting gun on the mobile quad-core race was fired at MWC 2012 this week. One of the first phones out of the blocks was the LG Optimus 4X HD, with the HTC One X, Huawei Ascend D Quad and ZTE Era not far behind. A slew of quad-core tablets have also been announced. And there are even rumours that the iPad 3 might feature a quad-core chip. But then as there are rumours the iPad 3 might include a holographic display, it's best to take them all with a pinch of salt.

By the way, how does the number of cores affect the GHz of the CPU?

The number of cores a processor has does not mean its speed is automatically doubled or quadrupled, and neither does it mean that the speed is divisible by the number of cores. So taking a 1.5 GHz quad-core phone as an example, each core runs at 1.5 GHz. It is not classed as a 6 GHz quad-core phone, nor does each core run a 0.375 GHz. Capiche?

So should I rush out and buy a quad-core mobile device when they hit the shelves?

Well, if you simply have to have the latest gadgets, then you're probably already hunting around to see who's taking quad-core phone and tablet pre-orders. If you're a big fan of mobile gaming you might see some immediate improvements with the new quad-core devices; resource intensive 3D games will lap up the extra power provided by a quad-core processor. If you're a heavy user of your smartphone or tablet you might also benefit from a quad-core device - the new Tegra 3 quad-core processor contains a fifth "battery saver" core for less demanding tasks.

What's next then? No wait, let me guess: 'octo-core' processors?

Intel has already produced a 48-core processor for cloud computing research.

I'll get my coat.

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