qualcomm-nvidiaWhen it comes to today’s smartphones, there’s a lot of interest around what devices are getting what SoC (System on a Chip). Many expected 2012 to be the year of the quad-core smartphone, but it’s much more likely that dual-core processors will still continue to show up in flagship superphones and attract a lot of customers from the substantial mid-end market.

The five major tech companies that dominate smartphone processor sales currently are Qualcomm, NVIDIA, Texas Instruments, Samsung, and –don’t you know it- Apple. Since the latter two make processors almost exclusively for their own smartphones, and with Texas Instruments not releasing a new processor until Q4 2012, it seems likely the 2012 smartphone processors race will be won by either Qualcomm or NVIDIA, and the two companies have taken very different approaches to their technology. But who knows, right?

The NVIDIA Tegra 3 Approach

Already popular by now, the NVIDIA Tegra 3 was first released on the ASUS Transformer Prime. As many expected, benchmark results were quick to show that its quad core processing abilities provide more raw processing power than that supplied by its older, dual-core brother, the Tegra 2. Still, with this in mind, it was not the kind of performance boost many were hoping to see. However, it was foreseeable that, being based on the older Cortex-A9, the 4 cores simply were not able to provide completely mind blowing performance. Referring to the Tegra 3’s graphical performance though, it is certainly worth mentioning that NVIDIA is the number one GPU producer in the world, something that is surely proven by the improved 12 core ULP GeForce GPU. Additionally, it’s truly remarkable how power efficient the quad core Tegra 3 is. Despite all the conjecture that is thrown around on a daily basis, the Tegra 3 processor still provides excellent performance, and is a battery sipper, and not a guzzler, under most use-cases.

The video below demonstrates the multitasking capabilities of the Tegra 3 SoC on the Transformer Prime. 

The Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Approach

Qualcomm has announced that their star for 2012 will be dubbed the Snapdragon S4 (Krait). The processor sports only a couple of cores running at 1.5GHz, so it should be slower than the Tegra 3 right? Wrong, for a bunch of reasons, including the fact that most of today’s applications are not optimized to properly run on double-core processors, let alone use the third and the fourth. Add the fact that the two cores on the S4 are based on an entirely new (and faster) architecture, one very much akin to the ARM Cortex-A15, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that preliminary benchmarks showed the S4 to be faster than the NVIDIA Tegra 3 when dealing with single and dual-core tasks. The Adreno 225 GPU provides less performance than the one built into the Tegra 3 SoC, but you wouldn’t expect NVIDIA to be lacking in that department, would you? Still, for most use cases, the difference between the two will be negligible, and as more apps are optimized for more cores, it’s likely that the Tegra 3 quad core SoC will be the winner down the line. Additionally, very few legitimate comparisons have been done between the two, and should be taken with little credibility. That is until S4 powered devices come to market in a short while.

The LTE Issue

Although there will be a balance between the multi-threaded performance offered by the Tegra 3 and the single+dual-core speeds of the S4, it seems like Qualcomm’s S4 has one major advantage up its sleeve that has nothing to do with performance at all: the S4 has a built-in LTE modem, so all mobile devices that will sport the S4 will come with out-of-the box LTE compatibility, something a lot of carriers from the US (as well as those from other markets where LTE coverage continues to be introduced) really want to see. For instance, the first Tegra 3 smartphone, the HTC One X, will reach AT&T’s LTE network but with a Snapdragon S4 inside.

This is obviously a delicate situation for Nvidia, but one that is subject to change over the following months, as NVIDIA has announced a couple of partnerships with companies that can provide LTE radios. In addition, NVIDIA has recently bought UK modem producers Icera, and announced before MWC 2012 that they will start producing their own LTE modems sometime before the second half of this year.

Judging on these criterion, some tech journalists were very quick to declare 2012 as a year that will be dominated by Qualcomm. Some were even foolish enough to assume that Tegra 3 will never get LTE support. Even if that was a remote possibility – which it is not – you still have to consider that only 6% of US smartphones purchased during the last quarter were LTE compatible. Granted, the market is destined to grow substantially during 2012, but it does show that most customers aren’t always looking for blazing data speeds.

Obviously, once Nvidia sorts out its Tegra 3 LTE issues, the company will definitely become a very fierce competitor in the LTE market as well, all due to one basic concept: quad-core is probably one of the most loaded terms to have in a mobile devices marketers universe, and carriers a lot of clout. “Hey man, yo’ this phone is, like, quad core, man.” Yes, yes it is, sir.

What do you guys think? Will the S4 be a better choice than the Tegra 3? Are four cores necessary and/or useful? Tell us what you think in the comment section below!

Mike Andrici
Growing up in my father's PC store, I was surrounded by and developed a passion for technology ever since I was in kindergarten. However, advancements made in the technology world continue to amaze me on a daily basis! I've been writing about the Android OS since back in October 2008, when Google and HTC launched the first Android smartphone ever, the T-Mobile G1 / HTC Dream. Although I'm no company's fanboy, Android is the mobile OS I devoutly support.