Do we really need eight core processors?

by: Robert TriggsJuly 30, 2013


With Samsung upgrading its Exynos 5 Octa to make use of all eight cores at once, and MediaTek recently announcing its own true eight core processor, it looks like octa-core processors could soon become the new norm in high end mobile devices. But do we really need all those cores?

There are obviously some benefits to going wide rather than aiming for brute force, such as increased performance when multitasking and less power consumption when performing day to day tasks. Eight core processors would certainly give us more potential for the former, but will start eating into those ever so vital energy savings, compared with equivalent dual or quad-core chips.

We have to consider if we really need more parallel processing power in our mobile devices? I find it doubtful that many, or indeed any, of us will ever be performing so many tasks at once that a quad-core can’t keep up. I’m not sure that the multi-threaded performance argument really stands up in favor of eight-cores for mobile devices. Furthermore, when it comes to more demanding applications, like gaming, you’re often better off with two or so more powerful cores to do the legwork.

Looking at the other beneficial aspect of multi-processors for mobile devices, lower power consumption, adding in more and more cores means more transistors on chip, and that results in more heat and power consumption, even when under-clocked in a semi-idle state.

mediatek octa-core small

MediaTek may be offering a true eight core chip, but that’s four more cores drawing current just to keep them ticking over.

MediaTek and Samsung are already acutely aware of this problem, hence why they are opting for low power cores and innovative architectures like big.LITTLE, to help keep the power consumption to a minimum. But there’s no escaping the fact that high performance requires more power, so these chips are already compromising just to squeeze in more cores. And that’s not even mentioning the additional financial costs in terms of wafer space and wastage.

According to sources inside Taiwan’s handset supply chain, this is the main reason why handset manufacturers won’t be rushing out to build eight core devices with the current technology. They simply don’t see any performance or power consumption improvements over existing quad-core chips, yet are likely to be more expensive. Supposedly, quad-core devices will continue to be the mainstream over the next 1-2 years.

ARM big.LITTLE technology shows the truth behind the Exynos 5 Octa. Side by side quad-cores, not a true octo-core.

On paper, ARM’s big.LITTLE MP architecture offers a good balance of peak performance and low energy states, but the design is still having teething problems balancing its workload.

Instead, technological improvements like smaller 14nm manufacturing techniques, new architectures, such as lower power Cortex A50 cores combined with heterogeneous architectures, and more intelligent schedulers will be key to driving processor technology forward, which could eventually lead to octa-core chips becoming much more viable.

To me, it seems like eight core hardware still has a way to go before it’s really suitable, or even needed for smartphones, hence the lack of early adopters. I’m hesitant to say that octa-core won’t become commonplace eventually, after all, consumers seem to be in pursuit of ever more performance. But it seems that we’re a few years off before the technology has matured enough to be truly useful.

  • MasterMuffin

    (most) Computers have stuck at 4 cores, why would we need 8 in phones? Make better cores, not MOARH

    • Joseph A. Yager

      I can definitely agree with this argument, as well. I have had the same quad-core computer now for years – I’ve just had to update the graphics card. Maybe someday we’ll be able to update our phones’ internals, but until then I would basically just want whatever is “best” at the time of purchase, whether that’s octa or a better quad.

      • MasterMuffin

        Future proofing, buy the best so you don’t have to upgrade in years :)

        • Sean Karpa

          Then you are paying a high bill to a service provider who won’t cut your bill down because you have chosen not upgrade.
          I guess you could just take that phone and get a prepaid.

    • RarestName

      Mine’s a dual core one and it’s much faster the phone :O

      • MasterMuffin

        Edit. Exactly

    • exactly.. just having lots of core won’t make it better. now a days multi-core in mobile has became a marketing gimmick .. and there are no heavy power apps / games on tablets as well… probably Android itself isn’t well designed to efficiently handle 8 cores. Quality over quantity matters.

      • abazigal

        The main reason for that is there will probably only be that 1 or 2 high-end phones that use such a powerful processor. The rest will be using slower ones to save costs, and there is little incentive for app developers to code with high-end specs in mind, when they know that most of the consumers can’t run them anyways (and so won’t buy them).

  • The Calm Critic

    We don’t need octa core computing but we do need a multi core batt tech to support that moving forward.

  • Joseph A. Yager

    Anytime I can purchase a somewhat future-proof device then I’m happy. Bring on the octa core devices!

    • Jacob Buys

      Any time i can purchase good battery life devices then im happy. Bring on dual core devices. Like come on my gaming computer is quad core and has a massive battery and can bearly live off of the plug

      • Joseph A. Yager

        I guess it would come down to whether or not it has a removable battery. I generally can always plug in any time I need to, or bring along an extra battery, but I definitely see your point, too.

      • bigbattery

        Motorola. Other manufacturers need to fit in 3500mAh. No exceptions

      • Cole Raney

        Aren’t more cores better for battery? More cores means tasks get done more efficiently.

        • Jacob Buys

          In theory, but each core has its own battery drain for instance, a dual core processor might use 4 watts per core, and an octa would use those 2 watts per core would be much higher see

        • Sean Karpa

          Most software is coded for 2 cores, while some may be for 4 cores. So if you have your 8 cores at 1.4ghz and someone else has a phone with 2 cores at 2.2ghz, on most programs, they may be even faster than you. Most likely, they will have better battery life as well.
          Same goes from 4 cores vs 8 cores. You will literally never use the additional 4 cores in the 8 core. They will simply draw power for nothing. If the 8 core is clocked slower than the 4 core, you likely will see no improvement in real life performance.

    • abazigal

      You will likely upgrade that device long before its specs become obsolete.

  • CpuKnight

    Umm I prefer higher performance per core. Two heads may be better than one but it also requires more food to feed the two and resources. Also that one may be someone who is fast and does the job like 4 times faster while that two may be idiots who couldn’t screw in a light bulb to save their lives. Not to mention many apps don’t even use more than 2 cores.

    • The Calm Critic

      this >>> “Two heads may be better than one but it also requires more food to feed the two and resources.”

      Couldn’t have put it better meself. Everyone vote this up please.

    • rockm

      having 4 processors that “good enough” and working together, are much better,
      than having 1 processor that “perfect”.

      that’s why our brain is still lot better than any fastest computer, it operates in principle of redundancy. it’s more stable too.

    • Cao Meo

      with more cores we have more options, and we can always improve the OS and the tools to better manage all the cores and make the systems more flexible.

      I’m sure that the benefits of having more cores will outweigh the cost of making them.

      • SoCDesigner


        Not all software can be parallelized. If it’s a texting/SMS app, no point to making it multithreaded. If it’s email, no point to making it multithreaded.

        Get this through your brains, people. More cores != faster performance.

        • Irick

          Multi-threaded email is actually a very valid use case. You want to be able to handle multiple pull requests at once if you are handling large volume updates. In the case of PGP mail you’ll need that parallelism for RSA key handling.

          As for SMS, you are correct, there is no point in parallelizing because that is not a CPU bottlenecked application. It is far more hampered by baseband and radio speeds. However, for web browsing, parallelizing makes sense. As does it for most smart-phone usage cases.

          When we talk about traditional dumbphone/featurephone features we are obviously not talking about applications that are CPU bottlenecked, they will likely show no difference between a single core version and a multicore version. However, when it comes to multitasking or large numbers of batch processes (like photo/video/audio editing) you want largely multi-threaded algorithms and a lot of cores and ram to throw at the problem.

  • Yes. We need 16/32/64/128 CPU cores. If we will have 64 cores at ~500 MHz, we will have good performance with good battery life. But hardware engineers and software developers must solve some problems:
    1). Latency
    2). Cache coherence
    3). Multithread code
    If this problebs will be solved, multicore future will be great =)

    • john

      If we are getting to that level, networking is going to be a bit of an issue-network on chip, but we are talking about a REAL DISTANT future.
      Simplification is a biggy. The power consumption will improve with lower clock speed, but simplified architecture will help with power dissipation.

      More of simpler, slower cores for better performance and lower energy consumption.

    • ckitching

      Even a core that is “off” will consume power, and because many things cannot be made to run as many parallel threads, so you still need fast cores, too. Paying for the static power consumption of the entire SoC while a single core is spinning slowly won’t really help you get long battery life.

    • Rok Kralj

      You’re forgetting the web browsers are single-threaded and that’s really not chanigng in the future. That means only one core can be used per tab. Congratulations, you’re an idiot.

      • Google introduced multi-threaded JS-compilation in Chromium in February 2014. Rasterization is also multi-threaded.

        Prooflink –

        • Rok Kralj

          Yes, but this is really limited. It could not use much more than one core. They themselves say it only improved the score by 27%.

          • Limited ≠ impossible. HTML5 spec defines Web Workers, they allow to use different multithreading techniques.
            And maybe, in the future, JavaScript will be deprecated, and Web Browsers will use other languages. Maybe browsers will die, I dunno.
            My current laptop has only 4 cores, and Google Chrome launches >20 processes, so where is my 32 core laptop? :-D

  • cbstryker


    Didn’t even read the article, but that’s my answer. Just because cores are getting faster and more efficient doesn’t mean we can’t put more of them in there.

    • Sean Karpa

      Cores 5-8 will basically sit at idle. Most likely, Quad-cores will keep up or outrun the 8 core (due to higher clock speed), and probably have better battery life.

      • cbstryker

        Why don’t cores 2- 4 sit idle?

        • Sean Karpa

          In reality, cores 3-4 often are at idle in smartphones (even sometimes in PCs). Core 1 will always be used clearly but the majority of programs are written for dual-cores now (at least in smartphones). So in a quad core, you will have 2 cores idle while a program written for dual-cores runs. Where as, on an 8 core, you will have 6 idle, and likely see the same or less performance than the quad.
          Now, some programs are written for quad-cores, usually high-end games.

          • cbstryker

            Not entirely true. The onus for threading processes should fall on the shoulders of the OS (and it largely is for Android) and applications themselves should be either agnostic or be written in a way that allows the OS to distribute it’s load over as many cores as the system wants/allows. Take the new Motorola phones as an example. It’s technically an 8 core chip (obviously not precisely the case, as it only has only two CPU cores) where each core is assigned a specific role. In a system that has true 8, 16, or even 128 cores there’s no reason it cannot assign as many cores as the system (or even the application) deems necessary. Just because a particular application or task requires x number of cores this doesn’t mean your phone or device will not benefit from x+4 number of cores. That’s 4 extra cores your device has available to handle additional tasks the device needs to process at a moments notice, or even provide true high performance multitasking. Ultimately, arguing for less is very short sighted. Battery technology is getting better, CPUs are getting faster while using less power, etc.

            Take a look at this article about writing apps for Android that make use of multiple cores. The functionality is there to use multiple cores be it 2 cores or 16 cores.


          • Sean Karpa

            Actually, battery technology has been pretty stagnant for quick some time in electronics. The improvements in batteries have been modest and most of the increase in life comes through better efficiency of chips. It is a big issue, finding a new type of battery that is better than Lithium-ion without any increased danger. Lithium-ion battery technology has stalled out in terms of advancements.

            “applications themselves should be either agnostic or be written in a way that allows”
            You use the word should….. Not sure I need to go any further than that.
            My high-end laptop runs on 4 cores. It can eat phones for lunch. Why does a phone need 8 cores but my laptop does not?
            I am more concerned with battery life, GPUs, and RAM than I am with saying I have more cores than someone. Now, if having 8 cores in my phone results in more battery life (very well possible with lower clock speeds), then so be it.
            I just don’t want smartphone maker to act like children and add 8 cores just to say “HAHA I have 8 over your 4!”
            The use of 8 cores should be for improved battery.

          • cbstryker

            “Actually, battery technology has been pretty stagnant for quick some time in electronics.” Oh good, thanks for the info, now the internet knows! /s It may have been stagnant but there ARE improvements. Phones are starting to come with 2000+ mAh batteries whereas 3 years ago that was unheard of.

            “You use the word should….. Not sure I need to go any further than that.”
            I was speaking in a general sense, I wasn’t being literal in the sense of “they should because they aren’t” as you decided to take it. You clearly are not a developer or bothered to read the link I included because then you would realize that Android already facilitates concurrent processing for applications.

            “I am more concerned with battery life, GPUs, and RAM than I am with saying I have more cores than someone.”

            How about we focus on ALL aspects of technology and bring them all together to make awesome devices. It’s not like companies decide one day “let’s make super fast processors, but let’s also ignore batteries and put all our resources on the processors team.” Companies are constantly improving all aspects of technology. Unfortunately, improving battery life is more of a physics problem than a development one. It’s relatively much easier to developer processors that are faster, smaller, more energy efficient than it is to develop better batteries. It’s more of a design issue (at least for the incremental improvements in processors) than a physics or chemistry based issue.

            “The use of 8 cores should be for improved battery.”

            Thus, we should have more and more cores being packed into processors.

          • Sean Karpa

            Android may use multiple cores but that doesn’t exactly mean they will be needed (idle) or used efficiently (wasteful and somewhat worthless).
            Just about everything you else said, you agreed with me. No need to educate me on batteries, I am quick aware. Also after as what you said on better chips, thanks for repeating what I said in a little more drawn out way, I got the point years ago, when I was 10 years old.
            I am all for focusing on everything but the main issue with smartphones (many people will agree), is now battery life.

          • cbstryker

            I don’t think you’re understanding anything I’ve said.

            Nice chatting with you.

          • Sean Karpa

            I understand just fine. I pointed out that batteries are the weakest link in smartphones. I would be willing to bet that most people will agree, at least consumers who aren’t in labs where phones are plugged up.

            I said the 8 processors aren’t really needed. That power would go to waste. I said the only reason it would be needed is to run low clocks and boost battery life.

            Anyway, same to you, have a nice day.

          • stucrmnx120fshwf

            Radical improvements can be made, using Lithium doped carbon fibre batteries, in terms of the physics, but they’re a long way from market.

          • stucrmnx120fshwf

            I’m not having a dig at you, but x86/64 bit chips have up to 8 times as many transistors, as ARM chips per core, I used to make the same mistake myself, not that I blame people for abandoning the desktop, for mobile in droves. For most stuff, improvements will be most noticed in RAM, graphics processing, screen, flash drive, than CPU core numbers, new Nexus 7, twice RAM, 4x GPU, 2x pixels, 4x original flash and when we go 64 bit ARM mobile next year, we’ll have to watch out for bloatware eating power, like it does on the desktops. :-).

  • Roberto Tomás

    multi-core is clearly already here, and the author rightly states that quad core is likely here for the next year or two at least, before 8-cores take over. But they will take over: the idea that Android can’t make use of multiple cores is as wrong-headed as it would be to imagine that full-blown PCs can’t make use of multiple cores. The idea that gaming can’t be threaded well is equally wrong, all the latest libraries are switching over to *heavily* threaded implementations, which would in theory happily run on 128-core processors, let alone 8.

    battery life is a concern, and not being able to intelligently power on and off cores will definitely slow things down. But clearly this is the way things are going – yet they author is right, that these early systems just prepare the industry to best make use of the cores, and they wont benefit as much as they could (and will) later on down the road. Still, I think everyone wants a little bit more power. It’s nice to have the option.

  • peterc

    Yes we WILL need 8 cores and above.

    1. More spare cores. If 1 core broken, can switch to other working core. More stable operation overall.

    2. Encrypt/decrypt using more complex method/ longer crypto key is possible and processed faster. Better security is possible without compromising performance.

    3. Software decoding of any future video codec (h265, etc), which definitely will require more computational power. That makes my phone future proof of any future video format, without need of specific hardware decoder support.

    • Sean Karpa

      How often does a core “break”? I have owned 3 PCs, 3 smartphones, 1 tablet, in addition, I have worked on uncountable numbers of PCs and phones, with not a single time, a core being “broken”, the whole processor, yes, but a core? No. (Not at least without ruining the whole processor).

  • Peter

    iPhone has only two cores and it performs so much better than any Android device I’ve seen… so the answer is simple – no we don’t. We need optimized software.

    And no, I’m not an Apple fanboy, I don’t use iPhones etc. I’m an Android user, been for ages, but the truth is the truth.

    • smokebomb

      Before I wiped my hands clean of all things Apple, i had a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th gen iPod touch. The 4th gen lagged when i played Hybrid Eternal Whisper 1 AND 2 among other games (Hybrid was my favorite).

  • Afnan Muhammad

    I prefer bigger battery and more storage for now. 4000mah and 64gb should be standard for next high end 5 inch smartphone.

  • john

    Atm, all semiconductor manufactures are focusing on power efficiency. I wonder what would happen if a 400wh/kg++ battery with decent cycles becomes available next year. I guess people would start to double their clocks.

  • Charles Chambers

    As someone said before, “I don’t want my phone to be twice as powerful while using the same amount of power (as last year’s phone) I want my phone to be as powerful (as last year’s phone) while using half the energy.

  • jamie

    We will not need 8 cores for next several years in mobile devices, but you have devices like the Ubuntu Edge running a desktop OS and a mobile OS. Octa core may be needed for such applications

  • red_fpxx

    software optimization for multi-cores is the way forward. If the O.S. can run it properly, it makes no sense

  • dafuqmk

    Well If you want a toaster on your ear go ahead make my day

  • Stefan

    Smartphone manufacturers want to get into the performance game. Think of a world where you don’t need a laptop, console , or even a desktop. Just a smartphone with wireless display capabilities. Kind of what Ubuntu tries to do. The smartphone in the center of your computing world.

  • smokebomb

    The only thing that can be said for certain is that Android will be on 16 core chips when the iPhone finally gets to quad core.

    • Sean Karpa

      Then programs will actually use quad cores while Androids run with 12 useless cores.
      More isn’t always better. By what you say, Samsung needs to make a phone with 256 cores at 800mhz.
      I would laugh as 252 cores waste away wallets and batteries.
      I’d rather see the R&D go into more useful things, like more power efficient quad-cores or more power quad-cores.

  • Cal Rankin

    8-core processors with control over what amount of cores we use allow a perfect balance between performance an efficiency. For ultimate power, all 8 cores run. For sleeping, 1 or 2 cores are active. For typical, moderate use, 2, 3, or 4 cores could run.

    “It’s a HEMI, with fuel-saving MDS!!!!!!”

  • Magnetic1

    I was thinking about this application that may someday exceed the portable computing power that we know of: a virtual world communication where in one person’s google glasses a projection is made of the other party in connection and vice versa. That way they can tango in the matrix.

  • Nitinart Nunthong

    for me quad-core is enough. If OS , Kernel or App cannot fully use 8-core sufficiently , it just useless . But if you want to play game much then focusing on GPU and RAM not CPU.

    If you need more parallel computing then let GPU do the job (just like AMD ‘s APU).

  • wikwakcow

    I really like this article. Do we really need that much power in our hand? are we gonna use all that power?

  • ckitching

    There’s definitely benefit to 8-core or larger ARM SoCs, but not likely for phones and maybe even tablets. Appliances like NAS enclosures and set-top boxes could definitely see benefit to additional power, just to name a few.

  • [A]dri[A]n

    Simple answer…NO. Quad core is more than enough. Look at the Optimus G, that phone is an absolute BEAST, even on Eco mode.

  • Ruz

    So much processing power will be required if you are driving higher resolutions in future like 4k display and we all want such high power to connect our mobile onto our pc monitor and or TV to become one stop solution for all our work and entertainment for which speed has to come first and the rest follows

    • stucrmnx120fshwf

      True, mind you GPU, RAM and flash are more important for 4k UD, like Tegra 4, Snapdragon 800, Exynos octa.

  • Ian Huntly

    Based on how dogged slow my Samsung Note is, the more processors and the more RAM the better.

  • Andy

    Im game , just give me an octa-core battery to go with

  • Matthew Simms

    I do not understand how we can have 8 core cell phones with out even having 8 core laptops.