With More Cores, the Cell Phone Closes in on the Computer

Intel plans to release a dual-core Atom chip during the second quarter, CEO Paul Otellini said on Tuesday. “The next innovation coming to Atom is on dual-core,” he said on the company’s first-quarter investor conference call. He didn’t, however, disclose if they would be for Atom’s traditional home of netbooks, or for smartphones or tablets, into which Intel (s intc) is also hoping to get its chips.
The idea of smartphones with multiple processor cores isn’t a new one — last year I talked to Texas Instruments (s txn) about it, and earlier this year Qualcomm (s qcom) said it would release a dual-core processor that could hit processing speeds of 3 GHz. Marvell (s mrvl)  is also exploring the idea of quad-core chips inside phones and other mobile devices. The goal of such tinkering is to beef up the performance of the smartphone so it can handle compute-intense tasks like multimedia gaming and multitasking.
As I explain in a new GigaOM Pro piece (sub req’d):

Speaking in early January at the launch of the new Nexus One phone designed by HTC and Google, Andy Rubin, VP of engineering at the search giant, compared the device he held up to the laptops he carried around four or five years ago. He was a little off the mark; the Nexus One’s 1 GHz processor from Qualcomm isn’t quite as powerful as the 1.5 GHz Intel Centrino processor that sits inside my ancient Toshiba from 2004, and the phone doesn’t offer anywhere close to the 60 GB of memory provided by the eight-pound machine. But as he waved this phone around, his point was clear. In his hand wasn’t a mere phone, it was a computer.
As the lines between computers and mobile devices blur, traditional PC vendors are building phones and the traditional phone manufacturers are trying to build mobile PCs. But with mobility come constraints — particularly around power consumption and battery life. So the big task for every device manufacturer is figuring out how to cram all the functionality of a big computer into a tiny handset. Many chip firms believe tomorrow’s phones will be powered by multicore processors that deliver the performance the consumer wants without destroying the lengthy battery life such devices need.

So as more vendors add multiple CPU cores to their chips aimed at mobile devices, the computing gap between a mobile phone and a laptop will close, leaving users to focus on features such as keyboards and screen sizes when choosing their mobile compute device. The real question is when this happens. Texas Instruments believes next year is when we’ll see them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if something sneaks out before this year is up.