Every time you look at smartphone’s specifications, you find that processors are labelled either dual core, quad core, octa core or deca core. These names indicate the number of cores available. However, more cores does not necessarily translate to more power, there are a lot more considerations. We will go through the major types of smartphone processor cores to help you understand the fine print next time you check out phone specifications.
ARM (Advanced RISC Machine) Holdings is the company that is at the center of mobile processor cores. The company provides the architecture that acts as a blueprint to manufacturers of mobile CPUs (Central processing units). The current architecture version is ARMv8 it comes in both 32 bit and 64 bit variants. 64 bit is equivalent to what laptops and desktops have been using as their standard, all it means is that mobile applications using this higher bit level can access more RAM than was previously possible. The ARMv8 has brought forth 5 processor cores that are running in almost every modern smartphone out there, they include Cortex A35, Cortex A53, Cortex A57, Cortex A72, and the latest Cortex A73. These 5 cores are the ones that are used in every smartphone apart from Apple and Intel mobile chip-sets.
The cores are divided into two distinct groups namely, power saving group and high performance group. The power saving cores are focused on carrying out simple tasks such as sending texts, making calls and other basic phone activities. Their main aim is to conserve as much battery life as possible. These cores are the ones that are most active in phones and also come with frequencies that do not normally exceed 1.8GHZ. Power savings cores include Cortex A35 and Cortex A53. The high performance group, as the name suggests, are for doing the heavy lifting. They are the least utilized cores in a phone; they only get activated when playing processor intensive games, recording 4k resolution videos and when running complex apps such as photo and video editors. The 3 remaining cores are all in this group.
ARM Cortex A35
This is the latest power saving core from ARM. No processor from the major manufacturers is utilizing this core. It is an ultra-power saving core that would be most suitable in smart watches due to their small batteries and their low powered tasks which include fitness tracking and syncing notifications.
ARM Cortex A53
This is the most utilized and most versatile core of them all. It is found in all tiers of smartphones from entry level to high end phones. It mostly comes in either quad core configuration or octa core. The popularity of this core can be credited to its power saving features, its decent performance for everyday tasks and low production cost. It can handle HD and Full HD displays when coupled with a capable graphics processing unit (GPU).
ARM Cortex A57
This core was released the same time as the A53. It was supposed to act as the high performance complement of the Cortex A53. Manufactures made octa-core chip-sets with four A53 core and four A57 cores to balance out the power saving and high performance equation. This kind of setup is called the big.LITTLE (written in small and capital letters in a paradoxical manner) configuration whereby the power saving cores are combined with high performance cores in the same processor; the cores are only activated when needed. For example, when typing a text message, the phone will only activate the power saving A53 cores, when playing a game, the A57 cores are woken up. Manufacturers can have this configuration in all manner of combinations; the most common is octa core with 4 power saving and 4 high performance cores like in the Samsung Galaxy S6. Other manufacturers have used 2+4 to make hexa core or even 2+4+4 to form a deca core. ARM has come up with a better high performance core to replace the A53, meet the A72.
ARM Cortex A72
This core has entirely replaced the A57. It offers 50% more performance than A57 at the same frequency. Unfortunately, only high end phones come with the A72 built in. This core has become the option of choice for manufacturers using big.LITTLE configuration. It also allows all manner of combinations. The bulk of 2016 flagship phones came with this core and thanks to its high performance, 4k video recording and virtual reality were made possible.
ARM Cortex A73
This core is the latest offering from ARM with 30% more performance than the A72 it is meant to replace. Currently, only one chipset utilizes it, the Kirin 960 from Huawei’s subsidiary called Hisilicon. It allows up to 2.8GHZ frequency levels while at the same time saving 30% more power than its predecessor the A72. It is no surprise that the Kirin 960 found in the new Huawei Mate 9 and the Huawei P10 is the most powerful and benchmark topping chipset currently available in any phone. In 2017, we are going to see a lot of high end chipsets come with this core. Samsung has already announced plans for using a customized version of it in its next flagship processor called the Exynos 8895.
It is good to note that ARM only gives blueprints detailing how manufacturers can build processors. Some companies use the blueprints as they are, without tinkering with them. On the other hand, companies such as Samsung and Qualcomm usually alter the blueprints to make custom cores. The Samsung Exynos chipsets recently started using custom cores called Mongoose, the first phone to utilize them is the Galaxy S7. Qualcomm’s latest custom cores are called Kryo, they are found in all 2016 flagship cores in the Snapdragon 800 series. Snapdragon processors are the most popular chipset in android smartphones. Apple’s custom cores are called Hurricane, they are being used in the latest iPhone 7. Altering cores has many benefits such as squeezing the most power out of the lowest count. For instance Apple only uses a dual core setup, yet it has one of the highest benchmark scores of any chipset. Qualcomm uses only four Kryo cores in total, and was the reigning benchmarks champ in 2016 android flagships. Samsung Exynos uses 4 Mongoose cores and 4 A53 cores to make a total of 8, it’s always among the leaders in the android world especially in the power saving sector when compared to Snapdragon chipsets. Mediatek uses 10 non-customized cores yet it was only midrange in terms of performance, thousands of points behind the likes of Samsung and Apple, however, this deca cores are affordable and prioritize on power saving over speed, they are found in the new Infinix Zero 4 Plus and the Tecno Phantom 6 Plus.
In conclusion, not all cores are created equal. It is wise to look for cores that will fulfill your smartphone lifestyle. Those that do a lot of social networking and little to no gaming can do with power saving cores (A35 and A53), however those that are power users who do lots of gaming and heavy apps need the A72, A73 core. Remember, more cores does not necessarily mean more power. The power factor lies in the type of cores used.