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Smartphones, tablets get creative with gaming and 3D

Hardware enhancements coming to next-gen handsets

Hardware and software enhancements could transform future smartphones into full-fledged gaming consoles or even weather stations, attendees at a processor conference said last week.

Beyond high-definition video, smartphones and tablets in the future might play 3D video and enable multiuser gaming in the cloud, attendees said at the Linley Tech Processor conference in San Jose, California.

Hardware enhancements could bring full high-definition gaming capabilities through the cloud, and later perhaps 3D for applications like video, gaming and maps, said Les Forth, field applications engineer at Freescale Semiconductor.

There will also be enhanced email, chat and browsing capabilities like users experience on PCs today, Forth said. Development of such services and technology will depend on the demand for such services, and device screen sizes and battery capabilities.

Smartphones and tablets that can play full 1080p high-definition video are on tap to hit store shelves as early as this year. Toshiba and Research in Motion have announced tablets that include dual-core processors and are capable of playing 1080p video. LG has announced a smartphone that also includes a dual-core processor and 1080p video capabilities.

The upcoming devices set the start for an exciting future in video and graphics on handhelds, said Jason Byrne, a senior product marketing manager for Continuous Computing, which provides hardware, software and services to telecom and network providers.

Efforts are also underway to bring 3D screens to handheld devices. Nintendo earlier this year announced a portable gaming console with a 3D screen, which will become available next year. Synaptics earlier this year also showed a prototype smartphone with a 3D screen.

Mobile phones already carry sensors including accelerometers, and attendees believed that additional sensors for activities like facial recognition and weather monitoring could be easily added. For example, Intel's researchers are already developing an array of sensors for smartphone-type devices to measure air quality. A mobile toolkit carries carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and ozone sensors to measure air quality, and targets the most common toxic gases people encounter.

IBM has developed a chip that can help gather data from sensors that can ultimately be sent to low-power devices such as tablets and smartphones, said Brian Bass, a senior technical staff member at IBM.

IBM has already announced the PowerEN processor, which is targeted for use in servers to mobile devices. Bass declined to comment on whether it would make it to handheld devices.

"We see [PowerEN] in the network... taking that raw data and going ahead and doing the number crunching in the middle of the network... all the way to the user-type things and sensor-type things. And you're down at a very low-end environment where you're just doing the data gathering and putting that intelligence there," Bass said.

However, there are questions on whether such new capabilities would affect the size and battery life of devices.

"There's a lot of people looking at overall power consumption of devices as well the computing power they can offer," Freescale's Forth said. "Remember the old phones? It pulls your shirt down. People don't want that anymore."

Power consumption in mobile devices depends partly on chip design, said Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at The Linley Group. The upcoming mobile processors are not only more powerful, but also smarter in how they operate.

For example, chip makers are adding multiple cores to boost application performance while trying to minimize the impact on battery life. These chips are also able to shut down inactive cores to save power.

Nvidia, Texas Instruments, Qualcomm and Samsung have also announced dual-core chips that are capable of handling full high-definition video. Marvell has announced triple-core chip for smartphones and tablets, which the company claims is faster than chips offered by competitors.

Manufacturing processes are also continuously improving, which helps chip makers deliver smaller and highly integrated chips with more capabilities, Gwennap said.

However, faster advances are needed in developing wireless networks to cope with data-hungry cloud and gaming applications, said Kannan Parthasarathy, an engineer at Byte Mobile.

"Now because the applications are living longer, the network is hurting," Parthasarathy said.

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