Qualcomm: No quad-core phones at MWC, but we’ll have something better

We’re hoping to see the first quad-core smartphones at Mobile World Congress next week, but the world’s biggest mobile chipmaker may disappoint us. In an interview, Qualcomm(s qcom) VP of product management Raj Talluri said the only quad-core Snapdragon smartphones we’ll see in Barcelona will be conceptual, but he promised we’ll see something even more elusive: an LTE phone that won’t eat your battery for lunch.

Qualcomm’s 8960 chipset, a dual-core Snapdragon processor with an integrated LTE chipset, will debut in multiple phones at MWC, Talluri said. That tight integration not only allows the radio and apps processor to share resources, cutting down on battery drain, but the silicon will be Qualcomm’s first 28-nanometer chip, making it one of the most power-efficient processors on the market, Talluri said.

“All of the LTE devices out there today use separate modems and use separate radios,” Talluri said. “With integrated LTE we’ll see significant improvements in power efficiency.”

Separate radios and processors aren’t the only causes of LTE’s notorious battery life problems. As I wrote last week, multiple antennas, multiple radio networks and the lack of LTE cell density are big contributing factors, but tighter integration with the processor and more efficient silicon design will go a long way to fix the problem.

A quad-core LTE smartphone might actually be a mixed blessing. All of the current quad-core designs out there — Qualcomm’s included — are standalone processors, meaning any device using them will compound its already poor power performance with a more powerful energy-sucking multimedia chip.

Qualcomm hopes it can offset the problem with its unique processor design. Unlike its competitors, Qualcomm’s four cores can run asynchronously, meaning each CPU doesn’t need to ramp up to its full clock speed when activated, Talluri said. By only partially activating each core, Snapdragon’s can incrementally scale their compute power, and thus their power consumption, he said.

Qualcomm may yet surprise us with a device, though, Talluri added. The chipmaker is still debating whether to demo at the show concept phones embedded with its quad-core 8064 Snapdragon, and while that silicon won’t be shipping in commercial handsets and tablets until the fall, some of Qualcomm’s customers may show off prototype devices of their own.

Qualcomm may sit this round out, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see other vendors tackle the quad-core phone at MWC. All eyes have turned to Nvidia(s nvda), which is almost certainly going to stick its Tegra 3 processor in some vendor’s handheld device at the show.  As my colleague Kevin Tofel wrote, few smartphone apps are designed to take advantage of a quad-core configuration, so we might wind up with quad-core devices with a lot of horsepower but with nowhere to go.