The Smartphone Is the Computer — Or It Will Be

Samsung today introduced Orion, the company’s next-generation, dual-core smartphone chip based on the ARM (s armh) Cortex-A9 architecture. Orion uses two 1 GHz processors and includes an embedded GPS radio for native location-based service support. The new application processor will also include a graphics core with hardware acceleration for 1080p video encoding, decoding and playback at 30 frames per second; Samsung says Orion will offer up to five times the 3G graphics performance over its prior smartphone application processor.

For now, Samsung’s announcement is simply that: an announcement. Orion won’t be mass-produced until the first half of 2011, so look to next year’s Consumer Electronics Show and Mobile World Congress events for actual products using the new chip. However, the capabilities of the new processor give a hint of what functionality you can expect in devices next year and beyond. Chips like this will continue to power smartphone sales, much to the chagrin of Intel (s intc). Juniper Research today says 3-D technology and dual-core chips will push the smartphone market to $94 billion in sales by 2015, thanks to functions like these:

More horsepower when you need it. Multiple cores helped bring speed to the computer industry, and they’ll do the same with smartphones. Look for developers to create handheld applications that can offer more complex features while maintaining or even increasing their responsiveness thanks to Orion’s support to execute code out-of-order. Instead of mobile apps limited by the CPU, screen sizes will become a more prominent limitation to getting things done. Multitasking won’t be as painful an experience as switching between apps should be quick and seamless. Perhaps most important to a mobile device, battery savings can be achieved through dropping down to a single core for processing when maximum performance isn’t needed.

Multiple screens. Perhaps screen limitation will be overcome by a traditional computer monitor or HDTV set. Orion — and chips like it from Nvidia (s nvda), TI (s txn) and Qualcomm (s qcom) — offers HDMI output for viewing smartphone content on a larger screen. Some phones do that today, making it easy to share pictures and videos on a television set, but Orion can drive three separate displays up to full 1080p resolution: two frames on the smartphone and one on an HDTV set simultaneously. The handset could be providing entertainment on a big screen, for example, while a user could be multitasking by sharing a movie review on Facebook in real time using the smartphone display.

Smartphones as future computers. While most folks today think the smartphone can’t replace a computer — for good reason — chips such as Samsung’s Orion bring that reality a step closer. Smartphone limitations of screen size and input methods begin to melt away when a powerful handset can be docked as the brains of a stationary computer. Imagine connecting a more powerful smartphone to a monitor and wireless keyboard: the only remaining challenge is finding the right apps for the tasks at hand. Expect developers to take advantage of improved smartphone processors and the new features they bring, making the smartphone a potential computer replacement in the coming years.

While there are arguably many reasons for the current smartphone growth trend — application ecosystems, use of multitouch interfaces and more widespread connectivity — one of the biggest is the impact made by the introduction of Cortex-A8 chip late last year: Handhelds became less anemic, more responsive and offered a better visual experience. With Orion and other next-generation mobile processors around the corner, the smartphone’s future looks even brighter as a near-primary device. Maybe I’m too bullish saying these chips will turn our smartphones into our computers, so we’ll see if Weili Dai, co-founder of mobile-chip company Marvell (s mrvl), confirms my thoughts at our Mobilize conference later this month.

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