Intel said on Tuesday night that it would release a dual-core Atom chip during the second quarter. “The next innovation coming to Atom is on dual-core,” Paul Otellini, Intel’s CEO, said on the first-quarter investor conference call. He didn’t disclose if the chips would be aimed at netbooks — Atom’s typical home — or for smartphones or and tablets, which Intel is also targeting.
Adding more cores to the Atom chip should boost the chip’s performance and make the chipmaker better able to compete with ARM-based processors already inside handsets, which have already begun closing the performance gap between their processors and Intel’s Atom chips. For example, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor can reach processing speeds of 1 GHz, which is close to the 1.2 GHz a low-end Atom chip can deliver — and it can do so while consuming less power. Qualcomm is also beginning the process of manufacturing multicore chips of its own, with the a dual-core containing two 1.2 GHz processor cores sampling now and one that will reach 3GHz using two cores sampling later this year, according to Mark Frankel, VP of product management for Qualcomm CDMA Technologies. Other ARM-based competitors looking to provide the brains behind mobile computing, such as Marvel, Texas Instruments and Nvidia, are also ramping up their cores.
Of course, the race for better performance isn’t just about beating the competition; it’s also about the ever-increasing compute and performance demands placed on mobile devices.
Speaking in early January at the launch of the new Nexus One phone designed by HTC and Google, Andy Rubin, VP of engineering at the search giant, compared the device he held up to the laptops he carried around four or five years ago. He was a little off the mark; the Nexus One’s 1 GHz processor from Qualcomm isn’t quite as powerful as the 1.5 GHz Intel Centrino processor that sits inside my ancient Toshiba from 2004, and the phone doesn’t offer anywhere close to the 60 GB of memory provided by the eight-pound machine. But as he waved this phone around, his point was clear. In his hand wasn’t a mere phone, it was a computer.
As the lines between computers and mobile devices blur, traditional PC vendors are building phones and the traditional phone manufacturers are trying to build mobile PCs. But with mobility come constraints — particularly around power consumption and battery life. So the big task for every device manufacturer is figuring out how to cram all the functionality of a big computer into a tiny handset. Many chip firms believe tomorrow’s phones will be powered by multicore processors that deliver the performance the consumer wants without destroying the lengthy battery life such devices need.
Today’s laptops have dual-core processors and graphics chips to handle more media-intensive applications, such as 1080p video playback. They also last about 4-6 hours running on batteries the size of … well, a laptop. That’s not going to cut it for something you carry around in your pocket, which is why the mobile industry is laser focused on power consumption. The screen and the radios are heavy power users, but the application processor also sucks a lot of juice; it’s on pace to suck more when asked to deliver 1080p video playback or run your Facebook while also keeping a browser and your Pandora stream open. Those are two key demands on the brains of laptop chips today: multitasking and multimedia — and those demands are moving quickly into the mobile handset/smartphone space.
The State of Mobile Multicore
In the traditional computing world, an Intel or an AMD would just boost the transistors to amp up the Gigahertz or maybe add some more cores to boost performance. Today, average laptops have two cores while servers have four or six. Intel recently showed off a demo of a 48-core machine. But adding cores for parallel processing on phones hasn’t been necessary until recently, when consumers and application developers started treating phones as miniature computers.
To be clear, the application processors inside a cell phone already have multiple cores, generally containing a CPU, a multimedia core and sometimes a graphics or other core. Sure, there are folks who dismiss phones’ screens as too small (Hi, Mom!), but every single company that is making chips for phones has integrated some type of multimedia capabilities into it. Nvidia’s Tegra chipset used in the Zune offers 1080p playback, and the Snapdragon processor from Qualcomm — the one in the Nexus One — offers 720p, as do the current Texas Instruments OMAP processors. Qualcomm actually purchased the mobile graphics division of ATI from AMD last year to ensure that it had the ability to deliver mobile multimedia performance to handset makers. Frankel said that the ability to tweak the designs on its own graphics and multimedia cores helps Qualcomm deliver a faster and more power-efficient application processor.
The other essential demand that’s pushing the limits of the application processor is the ability to run multiple applications. The Palm Pre was the first phone that really advertised multiple applications running at the same time (and Windows Mobile phones were the first to offer it), but such multitasking phones will soon become commonplace on the high end. The Nexus One offers this feature, too. The Nexus One and Pre can zip between apps far more quickly than many older phones, largely because the applications processors inside the phones deliver more performance.
Even Apple is bringing multitasking to its latest hardware with the release of the upcoming OS 4 upgrade for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. The upgrade will apply to all Apple mobile devices, but only the iPad, iPhone3GS and the third-generation iPod touches will get multitaking support. That’s because the older “hardware just can’t do it,” Steve Jobs said. For application developers, then, multicore phones mean more performance to tap into, as well as the ability to design an app users can run in the background on their phone — without sacrificing performance.
The Multicore Future
In the multicore computers and phones of tomorrow, we’ll have two CPU cores tackling the processing in parallel, something TI calls symmetric multicore processing, or SMP. There are a few examples of this emerging today:
- ARM Holdings, the company whose instruction set is behind most mobile application processors, realized that the need for multiple cores was coming in 2007, when it unveiled its Cortex A-9 processor, which could scale beyond four cores. It also created Mali, a multicore line for graphics.
- Texas Instruments is also focusing on multicore for handsets today. Last year, TI predicted that multicore phones would arrive in 2011, and it’s sampling one now on its OMAP 4 chipset.
- Qualcomm will sample later this year a multicore processor called the QSD8672. It had two integrated computing processors running at speeds of up to 1.5GHfor a total of 3GHz of performance . Frankel wouldn’t go into details, but it seemed like he believed multicore handsets might hit the market by the end of this year.
A farther out example of multicore processing is Marvell’s recently announced quad-core processor for mobile devices, which will deliver speeds of more than 1 GHz. The cores used for the quad-core design are the same ones used in Marvell’s Armada chips currently used in e-readers. However, as far as I could tell from Marvell’s cryptic response to my questions, this isn’t a real product yet; when asked if this quad-core design was sampling or would be in devices a spokesman replied via email:
“The newly Marvell chips are in stealth mode showing. They are designed for to meet customer specific requirements for mass consumer market opportunities. Our announcement offers a glimpse at the future of electronic devices. Currently we’re not sharing any customer devices at this time.”
While multimedia and multitasking will drive a need for multicore phones on the high end, the opportunity isn’t limited just to the superphone set. Some in the industry are prepping for multicore phones with less powerful cores as a power-saving mechanism, as well as a way to virtualize the handset. For example, two smaller 512 MHz cores inside a phone can deliver 1 GHz of processing speed when needed but allow the device to shut down one core when it’s not needed, in order to help minimize power consumption. (Even with faster cores this is a common practice in the mobile world to keep battery life as long as possible.) Handset virtualization is a little bit more interesting, as it allows a phone to have multiple identities, making it possible to have a work identity and personal identity on a single device. This could allow business users to bring their own handsets onto a job. If the user leaves, the enterprise can erase its information from the phone without requiring personal data or device losses. Virtualization requires the handset to have enough processing power to run a hypervisor and multiple virtual machines, which multicore processors in phones can provide.
- By 2011 (and perhaps as early as 2010) we’ll see phones containing two computing cores on the market.
- Vendors pushing multicore processors for phones include Intel, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Marvell today.
- Multiple cores allow phones to boost their processing power while still offering decent battery life, especially when cores are turned off and on as needed.
- Phones demand multiple cores because they are becoming more like mobile computers and web surfing devices, rather than a gadget designed for voice conversations.
- As they evolve, phones require the ability to multitask between applications and an ability to play HD video and multimedia — something multiple compute cores enable.
- In the future, multicore phones will not only offer full HD content consumption, but could also be virtualized much like servers or personal PCs are today.