How to Evaluate Mobile Processors

Since this article was first written, an updated version has been posted here. Check it out. A lot has changed.

The Need for Speed

The HTC Rezound has a 1.5GHz processor making it one of the fastest smartphones

The processor is the engine behind your mobile device and determines its speed. Mobile processor speeds have been increasing quickly over the past few years. Today, most of the best smartphones have processors which are either 1.2GHz or 1.5GHz. The HTC Rezound and Samsung Galaxy S II HD LTE both have dual-core 1.5GHz processors. Processor speed isn’t the only thing that matters. The number of cores is important as well. Back in February, we saw the first smartphones ship with dual-core processors. Dual-core processors allow your mobile device to do more things at once without slowing down. They are also faster than single-core processors and this can result in a more responsive user interface. Over the next year, dual-core processor speeds are likely to top out around 1.7GHz. Although processor speeds will continue to increase, there are limits to how fast they can get. Mobile processors are beginning to face the same performance and power challenges desktop CPUs faced a few years ago. Demanding applications such as HD video playback and advanced gaming are stretching their capabilities. In order to further increase performance and stay within the available power limits, mobile devices will migrate to processors with more cores.

Apple iPhone 4S

HTC Rezound

HTC Titan

Motorola Droid RAZR

Samsung Galaxy S II

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket

800MHz dual-core

1.5 GHz dual-core

1.5 GHz single-core

1.2 GHz dual-core

1.2 GHz dual-core

1.2 GHz dual-core

1.5 GHz dual-core

Chart 1: A comparison of the processor speeds of popular smartphones

Four Can Do More

Like PCs, mobile devices will migrate from dual-core to quad-core. Quad-core makes even more sense on platforms like Android which allows multiple apps to run in the background. Having four different cores allows your phone (or tablet) to do more at once without slowing down. Tablets will be the first mobile devices to get quad-core processors.  The NVIDIA Tegra 3 will be the first quad-core processor available on mobile devices. NVIDIA says it has 2 to 5 times the processing power and 3 times the graphic performance of the Tegra 2. This will result in smoother graphics and better gaming performance. The Tegra 3 is also capable of 1440p video playback. That’s higher quality than you can watch on your HDTV. The Asus Transformer Prime will be the first tablet to ship with a Tegra 3 processor, but rumors are also circulating about quad-core tablets from Motorola and others. Smartphones won’t be left out of the party; phones with quad-core chips will be announced at CES in January.

The Asus Transformer Prime will have the first quad-core CPU

Most quad-core processors are more efficient and generate less heat than today’s dual-core chips. That will result in better performance and longer battery life. How much longer? NVIDIA says a Tegra 3 tablet should be able to provide 12 hours of HD video playback.  The first quad-core processor will be 1.3GHz, but speeds will increase to 2.5GHz next year. Those chips will be faster than some of the CPUs that ship with mid-priced home computers today. Of course, NVIDIA isn’t the only company making quad-core processors, Qualcomm, Apple and others will also launch products containing quad-core processors next year.

Amazon Kindle Fire

Apple iPad 2

Asus Transformer Prime

B&N Nook Tablet

HTC Jetstream

Motorola Xoom 2

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

1.0 GHz dual-core

1.0 GHz dual-core

1.3 GHz   quad-core

1.0 GHz dual-core

1.5 GHz dual-core

1.2 GHz dual-core

1.0 GHz dual-core

Chart 2: A comparison of the processor speeds of popular tablets

The Importance of the Graphics Co-processor

Some of the fastest phones have separate graphics co-processors, which can have a big impact on performance. Even though the iPhone 4S has a slower processor, it outperforms the Samsung Galaxy S II in some benchmarks. This occurs mainly because the iPhone 4S has a faster graphics coprocessor. See the chart below for details.

Even though the iPhone 4S has a much slower processor than the Samsung Galaxy II S, it outperforms it in some benchmarks. Chart courtesy of AnandTech


Final Thoughts

In summary, the speed of the CPU and GPU in your mobile device has a major impact on its performance. Dual-core processors almost always outperform single-core processors, and quad-core processors outperform dual-core processors. Although dual-core processor speeds are starting to slow down, quad-core speeds will improve substantially next year.  By the end of the year, quad-core processors will be found in most high-end tablets and smartphones due to their improved performance and extended battery life.

In case you’re wondering, my next post will discuss the importance of 4G on data performance speeds. Stay-tuned…

– Rick

Copyright 2011 Rick Schwartz. All rights reserved. Linking to this article is encouraged.