Mobile phone chip maker ARM has been showing off multi-core smartphone processors and devices at this year's Mobile World Congress and predicts dual-core handsets will be the norm for budget smartphones by Christmas. The rate of adoption of dual-core smartphones has been rapid, says ARM's James Bruce, with handsets powered by Cortex A5 dual-core chips already being supersede by ones that run off Core A8 mobile processors.
Dual-core smartphone chips such as the 1GHz nVidia Tegra 2 found on the Motorola Droid Bionic offer significant battery life benefits and also allow handset makers to deliver HD video playback on their devices. Connectivity is also become more robust - LTE versions of Android phones and tablets are coming to the US, with Verizon announcing it is installing LTE infrastructure in 149 cities this year. This means users will be able to connect to the mobile web at rates of 10Mbps, something that will only add to the demand for media consumption and impact on handset batteries.
However, perhaps the biggest change will not be about the power behind the smartphone but the role the smartphone plays.
Smartphones officially reign supreme. They are now outselling both laptops and desktop PCs. As ARM’s lead mobile strategist James Bruce put it, “the smartphone is now our primary computer interface”.
In fact, the smartphone is increasingly being used to push content to other devices. Large-screen high-definition TVs are one popular option. Video bought from and downloaded to a smartphone handset can be viewed on its 3.5 to 4.5in display, but it’s far more enjoyable viewing it on a 32in or larger HDTV. This means the smartphone needs to be capable of handling HD video codecs and pushing that content over an HDMI-out connection or even Wi-Fi at a quality that makes for acceptable viewing. Other developments on ARM's predicted 'Superphone of 2013' include cameras capable of capturing at least 12Mp of detail.
Smartphones with built-in projectors have been around for more than a year; we’re about to start seeing more capable 3D smartphones such as the LG Optimus 3D, announced this week, which uses Imagination's PowerVR GPU and Texas Instruments' Omap4 processor. The Optimus 3D is able to overlay side-by-side 3D graphics on an HD 1080i screen.
A 22 nanometer wafer on show at the ARM stand at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona
Memory bandwidth is a huge challenge here, explains Bruce. Dual-core processors allow for much improved battery life and lift some of the graphics processing load from the main smartphone CPU, but in turn need a very efficient graphics processing unit (GPU). The ARM stand at MWC had a 22nm wafer produced in an IBM fab on display; Bruce says he also has a 20nm wafer on his desk but it's just too fragile to transport.
With challenges like this, it’s no wonder Bruce is able to cite Moore’s Law of computing power and state that smartphone processing power is at least keeping up with Moore’s prediction of power doubling at least every 18 months.
Phones are now driving developments in other types of hardware, with Motorola showing off a “dumb terminal with a keyboard” that conceals the handset behind a laptop-like screen. The terminal simply acts as docking station and keyboard for the Motorola Atrix 4G smartphone. Tablets and smartphones, in turn, will become remote media centres. This, predicts Bruce, is the way smartphones will push other portable devices. He expects to see an emerging market for third-party docking stations for a range of smartphones.
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