The Gigahertz Race Goes Mobile; Here’s Why

The brains inside your tablet and mobile phone are getting faster, rivalling the processing power inside a desktop computer by 2012 if new announcements out from Qualcomm (s qcom) and Texas Instruments (s txn) are any indication. Last week, Texas Instruments announced its OMAP 5 family of chips that will offer up to 4 GHz of performance, while Qualcomm showcased its latest Snapdragon offering on Monday, which offers 2.5 GHz per core and comes in single-, dual- and quad-core flavors. Yes, that’s potentially a 10 GHz chip there, although it looks more like Qualcomm’s upmarket-crush-Intel (s intc) laptop play as opposed to anything for a tablet or smartphone.

More Gigahertz for Mobiles Needed

When it comes to computing, the gigahertz race was declared dead a few years back. Broadband and a grid-like style of computing that used thousands of servers in tandem to boost processing power made the need for faster individual machines less relevant, while the x86 architecture caused faster chips to become too power hungry. But on the mobile side, using ARM-based (s armh) processors, trading more computation clock cycles (that’s what gigahertz measures) doesn’t require a linearly scaling trade-off in power, which means adding more high-performance cores can boost performance as needed without draining the battery. And, thanks to constant connectivity, we’re expecting more and more from our mobiles, which means more gigahertz are necessary. At Mobile World Congress, a few examples of those gigahertz guzzlers are on display along with the new chips to power the mobile gigahertz revolution.

Two Cameras Aren’t Enough

The LG G-Slate tablet's two rear-facing cameras.

The biggest gigahertz guzzler might be cameras, as mobile phones are slated to get a lot more of them. Qualcomm’s latest processor will support 4 cameras on a device, for example. Sure, most people assume two cameras will suffice — one front-facing for video chat and one rear-facing camera for traditional images — but think of gestures, touch and 3-D, which will use three or even four cameras. When it comes to touch, the current craze for capacitive screens (a current completed using the electrical charge of your body closing the circuit) isn’t the only option. For larger screens, such as Microsoft’s Surface table (s msft) or HP’s TouchSmart Desktop (s hpq), the touch interface is controlled by cameras. As tablets increase in size, capacitive touch screens increase in cost, so touch via gesture sensing might be a better option. (Plus, you can do it wearing gloves, an important consideration coming out of this frigid winter.)

Gestures and Cameras

Gesture is the other area where more cameras count. Several companies are showcasing gesture interactions with a mobile phone, and Texas Instruments is taking that one step further, showing gesture interactions with a screen projected on a wall from the mobile phone. More cameras can also help with 3-D video capture. (For proof, the LG Optimus 3-D shown at MWC has two-rear facing lenses for 3-D video capture, although it’s unclear if there’s a front facing camera for video chat.) If we accept that 3-D is real, or at least the gimmick of the year for smartphones, then mobile processors have to keep up with the trend.

Increased Image Quality

In addition to more cameras, extra processing power helps with making a single lens work better. For example, software, such as the that offered by Pelican Imaging, helps improve picture quality outside of adding megapixels, but the software and the module (see picture) consumes compute cycles.

Outside of imaging, there are the images themselves. While modern mobile phones all contain graphics cores of some type for video playback and gaming, the CPU doesn’t sit totally idle during that process. There’s also the increasing number of output mechanisms on mobile devices from next generation USB to HDMI. USB 3.0 requires fast processor cycles to deliver its fast data transfer rates.

In a professional setting, there are more CPU-intensive apps that will require multitasking and just more CPU-work for processing spreadsheets or perhaps the heavyweight Windows software that is being ported to ARM-based chips. Plus, there’s the concept of virtualizing a mobile phone or tablet, so it can do double duty as a work phone/computer and a personal gadget. Hypervisors, the software that virtualizes the underlying CPUs, are pretty large sucks of processing power.

Mobile Chip Futures Look to the Past

So while mobile application processors aren’t yet being used to sequence the human genome, they are turning into the desktops of the previous decade, being asked to be productive, connected and entertainment boxes while we’re on the go. And for all that, gigahertz still matter. Plus, given the energy efficiency of the ARM architecture, it’s possible to take the gigahertz race further than on the desktop, which could enable some powerful applications to run on our mobile devices. Add to that constant connectivity and we could create a network of real-time data processing machines that are far more powerful than we can imagine today. It’s a cool dream and the only thing standing in the way is battery life. Maybe those innovations will come at the next MWC.

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