Interview: Qualcomm on eight cores – no better performance, just more cost

Alex Walls
April 3, 2013

What really matters in a processor? Is it processing power, or RAM?

Should you care about Graphics Processing Units (GPUs, and yes) and if so, just how much?  And if you know nothing whatsoever about mobile processors or phones, what do you say to the person in the shop?

What Mobile had a chat with mobile processor manufacturer Qualcomm’s vice president of  marketing CDMA technologies, Tim McDonough, about what you should really look for in the great processor debate.

McDonough said the debate was a confusing one and that there was a simple way to answer it – none of the above mattered, in and of themselves, when taken alone.  Instead, it was how a chipset was put together that mattered, since consumers expected virtually everything from their phone these days; great camera, fast web browsing, the ability to play games, use apps, network.

”CPU is important, but it’s only a fraction of the story. You have to have right graphics processing, you have to have the right digital signal processors that do things like decoding and encoding video and audio to play movies or shoot movies, you have to have the right modem built in so that if you want to share those movies you just took you can actually do that sufficiently, memory’s a piece of it but it’s an overall systems approach…that is the most critically important thing.”

Talking up the wrong tree

McDonough said part of the reason the debate occurred was there were a lot of companies competing in the fast growing space of mobile processing.

“There are a lot of companies that don’t have their own CPUs, GPU architecture, their own modems and so when you get to that sort of competitive positioning in the marketplace what happens is people try to compete with what they’ve got, even if it’s not the right thing. So if all you have is a CPU that’s your unique property, you talk about CPU, CPU, CPU and you ignore the fact that graphics are also super important, you ignore the fact that having built in LTE is really important and you just try and shift the conversation towards what you’ve got.

Unfortunately the industry is so competitive right now that it’s driving those sorts of conversations that we think actually could mislead consumers to buy a product that might not meet their needs.”

Four cores good, eight cores not necessarily so…

The number one issue for mobile was performance with lower power, McDonough said, or the ability to deliver processing power efficiently. Qualcomm’s cores were designed to be controllable independently, where cores could be used to spread load and carry at a lower power, unlike most competitors, he said, which made a difference in efficiency and vitally, battery life.

“It’s sort of like walking into your house and having to turn all the lights in the entire house when all you want is the lights on in the kitchen.”

Eight core processors which had four large cores and four smaller ones that hopped back and forth between cores; the smaller cores weren’t very capable and switched to the larger corse, which burned more power and so couldn’t be run very often, switching back to the smaller cores.

“A lot of this eight core discussion is actually somebody trying to spin around what’s actually a design problem, they’ve got four that are too big and four that are too little, and turn it into a benefit…you don’t get any more performance, you just add more cost.”

The Samsung Galaxy S4 will launch in some markets with Samsung’s new eight core processor, the 1.6 GHz Exynos 5 Octa, and in others including the UK, with a quad-core Qualcomm  Snapdragon 1.9GHz chip. McDonough said no comparison tests on the device had been run that the company could talk about, but it had looked at eight core processors during evaluation of processor designs.

“We looked at eight core processors and we looked at some of the big cores plus some of the little cores and we didn’t think it was the right approach so we didn’t do it.”

The future of mobile CPUs

Graphics were becoming more important, something that was sometimes passed over in the debate about CPUs, McDonough said, and for many functions this was equally if not more important, such as for gaming and playing videos.

“People don’t use their smartphone to run Excel, when you think about raw processing, or to run massive databases, they’re multifunction devices with a heavy entertainment component.”

Mobile processors were likely to become faster, smaller and more energy efficient in the future, he said, and had, in some cases, taken over from PCs, in terms of behaviour, with more people using devices rather than PCs for things like social networking or checking email, as well as with PC manufacturers recognising consumer desires moving more to mobile-like PCs, such as having thin, light and always connected PCs.

“They’re adopting mobile processor tech to get mobile benefits in your next PC. So the behaviour’s already transitioned towards the smartphone and the tablet and the chips in your next computing device are already switching over in that direction as well.”

Now for the fun part – current smartphone?

“I’ve got several, I’m mobile-y promiscuous. Right now I’m looking at an HTC One, I also have an HTC One S…and then I have an Oppo Find 5.”

Favourite app?

“Dropbox, handy with lots of phones.”

Favourite film about computer chips and or mobile phone chips?

“War Games ‘ that’s a good one because the chip is very smart but it actually solves the puzzle in a helpful humanity kind of way.”

Dream phone attachment?

“A projector.”

About the Author

Share this article