Today, smartphone processors play a big importance when prospective buyers are deciding to purchase a handset. “Is it dual-core or quad-core? What’s the clock-speed, 1.5GHz or 2GHz?”— these are the kind of questions thrown by the average individual. Phone manufacturers also sometimes use processor-related factoids to pull wool over the eyes of the uninformed customer. Thus, you’ll come across a ‘quad-core 1.5GHz’ processor in a phone that sells for Rs 10,000. Deep-diving reveals different qualities of processors that are based on older or newer architectures (ARM Cortex A7 or A15), coupled with different GPUs (PowerVR SGX544 or Adreno 330), which creates a vast difference between the actual performance of two seemingly similar sounding chips. Also Read - Did Motorola just tease revival of Moto X series? Leak suggests Snapdragon 888 inside
Moving away from the numbers game, a new kind of change is seen in chipset marketing— co-processors. They are not to be confused to the likes of NVIDIA Tegra 3’s “companion core,” which was simply a low-power processor that would kick in idle states to rest the meaty quad-core CPUs in an attempt to save battery. No, these co-processors aren’t responsible for general-purpose computing but rather for specific purposes. In recent times, the most advertised co-processors were the ones put on the Moto X and Apple’s iPhone 5s. Motorola’s X8 “Mobile Computing System” is a combination of a run-of-the-mill Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro dual-core 1.7 GHz CPU, an Adreno 320 GPU and two low power co-processors— one for natural language processing and one for contextual computing. Speaking in plain English, these co-processors enable the Moto X to constantly listen to voices for a specific voice command that fires up the phone’s voice command app (aka Google Now), without even touching the phone. Next, these co-processors also detect motion which sets the phone in Driving Mode. They also help switch on the display when you take the phone out of your pocket, saving the effort of pressing the power button to check for notifications. The iPhone 5s boasts the “M7” motion co-processor that constantly records motion data captured from the accelerometer, gyroscope and compass. Apple says this data can be used to say, let the iPhone’s Maps app switch from driving directions to walking directions the moment you exit your vehicle. Also Read - Smartphones to cost more with import duty hike on displays: Everything you need to know
So, why do we need these co-processors? Aren’t our existing CPUs powerful enough to do the above-mentioned tasks? They definitely are, and in fact have been doing so even in the past. For example, many of Samsung’s Android-based smartphones support waking up the phone and opening the S-Voice app by saying “Hi Galaxy”. But they are a little too powerful. Activating the primary CPU to constantly perform these tasks will put a dent on the battery life. Co-processors are said to be much more power optimized, since they are laser-focused on performing a single or a couple of tasks.
The results are evident in the fact that the Moto X delivers a good working day’s up-time with the voice and motion detecting features turned on. The power-savings achieved from Apple’s M7 coprocessor will be observed once many developers start taking advantage of the co-processor.
So, why companies like Apple and Motorola are putting more focus on these co-processors than joining the rest of the lot in traditional spec-wars? Because, it probably has come to a point where upping the gigahertz and cores in smartphone chipsets doesn’t result in a tangible benefit to the average smartphone user. Take the case of the HTC One Max— tech media lambasted the use of a Snapdragon 600 chip rather than the current top-of-the-line Snapdragon 800, but also talked about how smooth the overall interface was, without any major lag. This shows that today’s smartphone hardware has evolved more than what today’s software demands. Sure, more is always merrier, but the Moto X and the iPhone 5s, both of which coincidentally are premium phones that run on dual-core chips, are known to be sufficiently fast for the typical user.
And this is why co-processors are going to be the next marketing tools for phone makers to differentiate from the crowd, and at the same time provide real advantages to the user instead of just topping benchmark results.
Rohan Naravane heads the Content at PriceBaba. He’s usually found rambling tech on Twitter @r0han.