Surprise! First Dual-Core Smartphone Arrives Early

As powerful as smartphones have become this year, none have had a multi-core processor under the hood. At least not until now: LG has officially announced that Europe and Asia will get the Optimus 2X, a svelte Google Android (s goog) handset with Nvidia’s (s nvda) dual core Tegra 2 chip, which effectively behaves like two CPUs in the phone. The phone represents a solid win for Nvidia; although the Tegra 2 was introduced nearly a year ago, few devices up to now have used it.

We’ve been tracking news of dual-core processors for mobile devices throughout 2010, but have been looking to the future for actual products that will use them. Qualcomm (s qcom), for example, recently announced a two-core version of its Snapdragon chip called the MSM8960. However, that silicon won’t be sampling to device-makers until sometime in 2011, so it won’t power products prior to that. Texas Instruments (s txn), also has a new dual-core chip in the pipeline, the OMAP4440, which boasts two 1.5 GHz computer cores. The company expects production of the OMAP4440 in the second quarter of 2011. While these chips are “coming soon,” Nvidia’s Tegra 2 will be in the Optimus 2X smartphone next month and rumors indicate it will power several tablets too.

So what exactly does a dual-core CPU in a phone bring to the user? Much like upgrading to a personal computer with the latest and greatest processor, these chips can improve the overall speed of a smartphone but still maintain judicious battery life. That’s important, because even the fastest mobile devices are essentially useless if the battery only lasts a few short hours. These chips can improve overall speed, handle 1080p video playback without breaking a sweat, and boost webpage loading by 33 percent, according to TI. In a lengthy whitepaper on multicore CPUs, Nvidia mentions a multi-tasking boost: A phone’s navigation app could run on one 1 GHz core while a streaming audio application could run on the other 1GHz core.

Indeed, dual-core chips are the future for more powerful, yet power efficient smartphones as Stacey noted in a GigaOM Pro report on the topic (subscription required). Back in April, she wrote:

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.

While dual-core smartphones will bring immediate performance gains without sacrificing a device’s run-time, more potential awaits. Clearly a phone’s operating system can help manage processing power by leveraging two or more computing cores, but mobile app developers could achieve gains by writing applications optimized for multi-core use. Through the use of parallel computing, software can better leverage computers with multiple cores. By taking the lessons learned for building software to run on multiple cores in servers developers can build apps that deliver faster results because the processing can take place on the phone. Richer media and games are also a byproduct of multiple cores.

So the full gain from dual-core chips in smartphones may take time to realize, much as it took time for Nvidia to get a top-tier handset-maker to use its Tegra 2 chip. A dual-core phone announced in 2010 and shipping a few short weeks later is a bit of a surprise to me, but I actually expected that if one did appear this year, it would be running on Nvidia’s platform: last month I saw the window of opportunity open for the chip company and this month I see that LG stepped through it. And as Om noted back in May, the arrival of such chips is actually closing the mobile window for Intel (s intc), as it struggles to get its x86 chips to use less power.

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