Why the New iPad’s Lack of Quad-Core CPU is No Big Deal

01 January 2012

The dual-core processor revolution was definitely an impressive step forward for the mobile industry, but is advancing so quickly in to the quad-core realm moving a bit fast? Yes, quad-cores are faster and can handle more complex calculations. They also allow for better and faster apps to be developed. But right now there just aren’t that many available apps that require so much raw power.

Already a lot of phones that sport dual-core CPUs tend to have problems with heating up badly when they’re pushed hard, or suffering from a lack of battery life. This would seem to indicate that dual-core technology has not yet been flawlessly integrated in to the mobile market. It is more than possible, then, than rushing headlong in to the quad-core phase might be seen as questionable, even rash.

Right now the portable device market would benefit from a focus on increasing Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) power, RAM and Camera capabilities. In the tablet market we also need some serious attention payed to displays. It is interesting to note that in the Android smartphone market we're already seeing 720p displays, but in the Android tablet market we're seeing very few displays that could be considered similarly impressive for their size.

A simple reason for this trend is marketing. Before CPU power it was the MP count of a camera. How many megapixels a camera had was presented as directly proportional the quality of the photos it took. We went over this in some detail how incorrect this representation is in our Nokia PureView blog post during MWC. After MP it was whether or not your camera could capture 720p or 1080p video, which is just as flawed a system of measurement as judging photos by megapixels.

Now the focus has turned to CPU power. Specifically how many cores a CPU has and what GHz rating each of those cores boasts. This, at least, is a mildly accurate way of judging part of a device’s speed. A powerful CPU is important when it comes to processing and upgrading these processors is going to be absolutely necessary in the future as we move on down the road of technological advancement.

However, what’s happening right now in the mobile market is that manufacturers are beginning to focus on CPU power above everything else in order to keep up in the marketing game. As a result the CPUs for mobile devices are progressing in power much faster than is necessary or even applicable.

A quad-processor is not going to make a huge impact on multitasking or app-switching in a tablet or phone. It’s also not going to be the primary factor behind how quickly apps open and close. As things stand in the market right now there aren’t even really any apps or services that require a dual-core processor, let alone a quad-core.

What a quad-core processor will do is use up battery life. Judging by the current generation of dual-cores there’s also a very high chance that we’ll see some uncomfortably high levels of overheating in focused areas of quad-core handsets. The kind of temperature that you can feel when it’s in your pocket, let alone held in your hand.

If you want your apps to open faster, or your phone to work more smoothly without needing to manually manage which apps are running in the background and which aren’t, then you’ll need more RAM. If you want those beautiful, graphically intense games to work without losing frame-rate then you need a better graphics card (GPU). If you want a better viewing experience then you require a better display and, probably, a better GPU to back it up.

The processing units in high-end smartphones are fine the way they are, for now. Of course they will need upgrading in the future but right now we’d like to see a shift in focus to the other bits and pieces that make our portable devices feel like magic rather than technology.

This is the reason that we’re fans of the approach Apple has taken to the hardware in the New iPad. The incredibly pixel-dense display is an amazing step forward in the tablet market. The A5X processor may be a dual-core CPU, but it boasts an upgraded quad-core GPU which is all that was needed for the moment. This means you can play more visually demanding games without making the sacrifice of battery loss or suffering through uncomfortable heating issues that could come with a quad-core CPU.

The rear-camera has also seen an update. It’s not a big or even impressive one, but it is there. The 5MP camera on the iPhone 4 was amazing and the 8MP camera on the iPhone 4S blew us away. The New iPad sports a 5MP rear camera that uses the same optics as the iPhone 4S’ 8MP version. As we said before MP rating is not the be-all and end-all of photography. The actual hardware behind the camera is extremely important as well, so we have high expectations for the camera on the New iPad. At the very least it's got to be an improvement over the previous camera on the iPad 2, which had a 0.7MP rating and generally took sub-par photos.

Right now the RAM count of the New iPad is still to be announced. However, with companies like Apple RAM isn’t as important as it may be on other devices. The reason being is that Apple is what is known as a 'vertically integrated' company. That means that everything is designed by Apple to work for Apple products. The hardware and the software are all designed to work specifically with one-another and nothing else. This has a lot of drawbacks, such as Apple’s often frustrating DRM policies and firm control of its product and software.

However, one particular benefit is that much less processing and graphics power is required in order to get things to run smoothly. Having an operating system designed to work with specific pieces of hardware removes a lot of the extra stuff that gets in the way of other OSes like Android or Windows Phone. It’s basically up to the user as to whether or not this is a good enough trade-off for the more restricted experience. Apple’s sales figures seem to indicate that most people think it is.

But DRM isn’t the issue here; tablet technology progression is. What Apple has done with the New iPad is not only intelligent and good for Apple, but it should hopefully prove to be a great kick in the pants for the tablet industry as a whole. When it comes to newer gadgets like tablets Apple often ends up heading the pack with new trends and ideas. With Apple itself switching focus from processing power to graphics and display then there’s a very good chance that other manufacturers will follow suit. Of course this projection is based on the assumption that the New iPad will sell well, but we really can’t see it doing poorly.

No matter how you feel about Apple or the iPad line itself we still say that the New iPad is pushing the tablet market in a promising direction, a direction that will hopefully be picked up in the smartphone market as well. Only time will tell if the other manufacturers learn from Apple’s example this time around, but history indicates that they will. Even if it takes them a generation or two of tech to do so.



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