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Mobile Phone Processors: Deciphering Gigahertz, Cores and Architecture

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Processors.jpgIn our on-going series of articles about mobile technology, we’ve been looking behind the scenes at various aspects of your mobile phone and how the different technologies all combine together to bring you today’s seamless and super-powered smartphone experience.

 

The series of articles has so far taken us on a journey through different types of display technology, geolocation technology such as GPS, mobile operating systems and user interface design. We’ve also looked at the multitude of different ways that we can interact with a smartphone: using a hardware keyboard or software keyboard, through a touchscreen display, voice recognition technologies or using a stylus pen.

 

In the latest article, we turn our attention to what is arguably the most important part of a modern smartphone: its processor – the brains of a smartphone. We investigate the history of processors on smartphones and tablets and look at how you can compare the performance of different smartphones.

 

Comparing Smartphone Performance: Cores and Gigahertz

 

HTC One Series.jpgWhen looking at smartphone processors, there are typically two main ways in which we can superficially compare them.

 

The first is the number of processor cores: essentially the number of “brains” that your mobile phone has. Most of the latest high-end smartphones either feature a quad-core processor (e.g. HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S III) or a dual-core processor (e.g. Apple iPhone 4S). Many older and low-end smartphones simply feature a single-core processor, though this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re slower.

 

The second figure that we typically use to compare smartphone processors is the clock speed - typically measured in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz). This figure is related to the maximum number of calculations that your smartphone can perform each second. There are 1,000MHz in 1GHz.

 

On processor specifications alone, today’s top smartphones compare as follows:

 

Phone

Number of Cores

Maximum Clock Speed

Apple iPhone 3G S

Single Core

600MHz (0.6GHz)

Apple iPhone 4

Single Core

1GHz

Apple iPhone 4S

Dual Core

1GHz

BlackBerry Bold 9900

Single Core

1.2GHz

HTC One X

Quad Core

1.5GHz

Nokia Lumia 800

Single Core

1.4GHz

Samsung Galaxy Note

Dual Core

1.4GHz

Samsung Galaxy S II

Dual Core

1.2GHz

Samsung Galaxy S III

Quad Core

1.4GHz

 

The popular perception is that number of cores and maximum clock speed are both good indicators of how well a smartphone will perform, with higher numbers in each category being. Whilst this is true to some extent, it isn’t the full story. Devices such as the BlackBerry Bold 9900 and Nokia Lumia 800 often come out badly in side-by-side comparisons as both feature only a single-core processor.

 

Nokia Lumia 800.jpgIn reality, comparing smartphone processors based on the number of cores and clock speed can be superficial and may have no resemblance to how fast the phones feel in day-to-day use. The responsiveness of a smartphone also depends upon the operating system and user interface layers such as HTC Sense and Samsung TouchWiz that can also affect the responsiveness of your device.

 

Nokia, which uses a single-core processor on its flagship Lumia smartphones, often argues that dual-core and quad-core processors aren’t particularly useful and simply drain battery unnecessarily. Their ‘Smoked by Windows Phone’ tests often show the Lumia 800 matching or beating other smartphones on speed when completing daily tasks, despite the fact that the Lumia “only” has a single-core processor. Whilst dual-core and quad-core processors can allow your smartphone to run more applications simultaneously, the usefulness of this can be questionable due to the fact that smartphones typically only display one application on the screen at a time.

 

Benchmarking Processors

 

Nenamark 2.jpgRather than comparing smartphone processors based on number of cores and clock speed, a better method for comparing smartphone performance is to use a benchmarking application. These applications essentially put your smartphone through a series of tests and measure how long it takes for it to complete them. Popular benchmarking applications for Android include Quadrant Standard, AnTuTu Benchmark and NenaMark 2. Any of these 3 applications can be installed on your smartphone to measure its performance and allows you to compare performance against other devices. Benchmark scores can also be found online on most good phone review websites.

 

Unfortunately, it’s much harder to compare the performance of phones across different operating systems due to the fact they run different applications. One common cross-platform benchmark which is used is the SunSpider Benchmark. This benchmark measures how long it takes your smartphone web browser to complete various tests. However, the results are often more strongly related to your browser software rather than the overall performance of your smartphone.

 

One thing is for certain: there isn’t an easy or fool-proof way to compare the performance of different mobile phones. Online reviews and benchmarks can be a great source of information as can be trying out a phone in-store. In general, you should avoid making your choice based upon number of cores and clock speed alone.

 

Future of Smartphone Processors

 

BBC Micro.jpgAs of 2012, virtually every smartphone and tablet uses an ARM processor. ARM chips can trace their heritage all the way back to the ‘BBC Micro’ computer in 1981. Today, almost every mobile phone operating system (including iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry) is designed to run on an ARM processor. This is primarily due to the fact that the low power consumption of ARM chips makes them ideal for battery-operated smartphones.

 

Unlike smartphones and tablets, PCs and laptops tend to use Intel-based x86 chips. x86 has traditionally been the processor architecture of choice for computing – operating systems such as Windows and Mac OS X are only available for x86 chips. Whilst x86 chips offer great performance, the heritage of x86 chips in always-plugged-in PCs has harmed Intel in its attempts to enter the battery-conscious smartphone and tablet markets. This is something that Intel are looking to change.

 

Over the past few months, Intel has attempted to take on the smartphone and tablet market by launching the x86-based Medfield chip for smartphones. Android has already been ported to x86 processors (our resident blogger Will installed Android on his x86-based laptop) and the first Intel-based smartphone, the Lenovo K800, is set to be released in the coming months. The K800 has had some pretty impressive benchmark results and will give today’s top smartphones a run for their money. If Intel has its way, the smartphones and tablet of the future could contain totally different technology inside.

 

Windows 8.jpgIn the meantime, Microsoft has been hedging its bets and developed Windows RT, a version of the Windows 8 operating system for ARM processors. With tablet devices such as the Apple iPad 3 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab running on the ARM architecture, Microsoft hopes that a version of its operating system for ARM-based tablets will help its operating system to take on the tablet market.

 

One thing is for certain: The mobile industry is gearing itself up for a battle between ARM and Intel and the winner could determine what the future of mobile computing looks like.

 

Your Thoughts…

 

In this article, we took an in-depth look at the processors that can be found inside our smartphones and tablets. We discovered that specifications such as clock speed and number of cores are often unreliable indicators of how a device will perform – the operating system and user interface layer can make a huge difference too. When comparing smartphones based on performance, we recommend referring to online reviews and benchmarks instead of relying on specifications alone. We also looked at how the mobile industry is gearing up for a battle between ARM and Intel and how the winner could determine what the smartphone and tablet of the future looks like.

 

Which smartphone offers the fastest and most responsive experience for you? Do you normally compare the performance of different smartphones before buying or are other things such as the display more important to you? If you could build your own perfect smartphone, what processor would you use? Drop us a comment below… we’d love to hear from you!

 

Ken Lo writes about mobile technology and the mobile industry at Ken's Tech Tips.

22 Comments
motivator
Nice read!
genius
Great blog here - I think something which always confuses me is that the iPhone 3GS only has a 600Mhz single core processor yet it shows no apparent lag compared to a former HTC Wildfire I had where it struggled to even load up threads of text - lagging whilst typing up texts and generally a pain day to say. Yet the iPhone 3GS is fairly smooth whilst running applications and surfing whereas the Wildfire lags through playing games.
consultant
nicr blog, I want the nokia lumia
maestro

@dratheef

 

Easy answer. iPhone 3GS runs iOS and the HTC Wildfire runs Android. iOS is programmed in 3 langauges and optimised for the devices it runs on which is why the iPhone 3GS probably doesn't lag. Android is for any phone, and is written in Javascript which I have heard is slow, and Android isn't as optimised as iOS is. 

 

 

genius
@mat1111 Thanks for clearing this up :-) I think, in this case, Android should come up with a times down software which is easy going for slower powered phones such as what Windows are doing for their latest 800Mhz processors for the basic Nokia Windows Phone. http://www.theverge.com/2012/2/27/2826813/nokia-lumia-610-windows-phone
maestro

@dratheef

 

I don't think it's as simple as that. I bet you didn't know that Android is actually a modified version of linux, but is built and obviously developed for touch screen phones. Now normally Linux is cross platform hence why Android is on so many phones, but it all depends on the speed of the CPU in itself. If you think right, All the new HTC phones have got very powerful processors. That tells me, you need lots of power to run Android, not just to flash it and say it's quick, when that isn't true.

 

The iPhone 4S has a dual core 1Ghz (reality wise they're both clocked to 800Mhz), but the phone is still quick. That is because the programming languages for iOS are up to date and they work well together, plus iOS is optimised for it's devices, and foremost why you were slightly puzzled as to why the 3GS doesn't show lag, unlike the Wildfire - same rule applies. 

 

If you program in a good langauge then your phone works really well. 1.6Gz in total for a phone and even dual core may seem slow, it isn't. Apple designed their parts custom and they've made iOS as it is, and it gets the most out of the hardware, opposite story for Android. 

head honcho

great post

I'm right...

Nice read ,   but  how  could you leave out the " worlds first "  dual core phone  ( the LG Optimus 2x )  with tegra 2 ,  an  8 Meg  camera , full  HD Video , and  HDMI  to name  but a few of it's  " jewels "  .....  Smiley Frustrated  Smiley Wink

enigma

@ matt & drla... not to argue or throw a cat at anyones point, but, the wildfire only has a 528Mhz processor. so comparing it to a 600Mhz processor isn't fair to start with. further arguments about ios v android are really only valid on comparable devices.

aspirant

Speed is influenced by a number of factors, such as the speed of the memory, graphics etc. Android users can add extra memory, but if they use a slow micro SD card, it can cause the phone to slow down when apps on that card are run. I get irritated about the lag in my Apple itouch, but I am more irritated by the fact that the 32GB memory is full and cannot be expanded.