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Texas Instruments is betting that a more powerful cell phone, one that uses identical computing cores working in parallel inside the application processor, a setup it calls symmetric multicore processing, will be here as soon as 2011. Such phones, which will be built with multicore ARM-based […]

hdr_ti_logoTexas Instruments is betting that a more powerful cell phone, one that uses identical computing cores working in parallel inside the application processor, a setup it calls symmetric multicore processing, will be here as soon as 2011. Such phones, which will be built with multicore ARM-based chips, will allow for faster processing on mobile phones without sacrificing battery life.

Most cell phone chips have multiple cores — one to handle general computing, another for graphics and perhaps some for multimedia — but symmetric multicore processing, or SMP, is new to mobile devices. Unlike servers, which have multicored chips to share a single massively parallel workload, using multiple cores inside a phone allows the operating system to divvy up the work among each core, allowing it to focus on one job instead of multitasking.

Like most people, who are more efficient when focused on a single task, this engineering allows phones to complete a job faster and then power down the core when it’s not needed. Texas Instrument’s OMAP 4 processor, which will be built as a prototype in the fall, will be the first SMP application processor available from the Dallas-based chip company.

According to Brian Carlson, a platform marketing manager with TI’s OMAP group, operating system vendors are already prepping for the change. Eventually, he said, mobile phones will be virtualized to the extent that any processing core — be it a general purpose processor or a graphics processors — may be called upon to do whatever task the OS deems it can do the quickest and without using more power. Such abstraction between the hardware and the OS mirrors what is happening in the data center as servers are virtualized, and follows on a trend of smarter phones on which TI is banking. (TI has, along Motorola, invested in VirtualLogix, a company that provides virtualization software on mobile phones.)

“I don’t see anything letting up on the demand for processing, so once you have multiple cores and SMP, then you have a foundation that scales,” Carlson said. “When you look at the architectures of mobile processors, those architectures that can scale will be in the widest range of products and have the most success.” Which means that if multiple cores and virtualization inside mobile devices pans out as a way to add speed without sacrificing power, it could become a new foundation for the type of mobile computing that’s changing the technology landscape. TI would very much like that.

  1. With the ARM Cortex, my understanding was that we would be seeing multi-core versions this year. I suppose that is wrong. Just as interesting is perhaps the ARM graphics co-processors set to hit in December. The question will become what defines mobility? Certainly size, but the processors are becoming incredibly interesting and powerful.

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    1. Stacey Higginbotham Tuesday, June 23, 2009

      There are a few multicore ARM MP cores available and several chip vendors hoping to use them in processors for phones, but I think TI is saying 2011 based on when these phones will be available to the public. The cores are out today, but it takes time to design a build a chip around them, then build a device and test it on a network. That said, we can always hope for sooner.

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    2. What’s interesting is that Motorola is already using Open Kernel Labs OKL4 mobile phone virtualization solution for their new Evoke QA4. It was announced some time ago that Qualcomm would be standardizing their next-generation chipsets on OKL4 as well. With OKL4 on more than 300MM devices, including the G1, and dozens more designs, it’s fair to say the mobile/wireless market has adopted OKL4 as the emerging, open source, standard.

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  2. To respond to Nicholas: Yes, you there will be a multicore ARM Cortex-A9 this year with sampling of the TI OMAP4430 device to high-volume OEMs, but it typically takes phone vendors 18 months or so from samples to phones in the stores. In general, end-products are released about every 2.5 years with the next-generation ARM cores: ARM11 in late 2005, Cortex-A8 in Sept 2008 (Archos 5 and 7) and Cortex-A9 expected early 2011. Note however, that it is possible that non-phone devices could get to market somewhat earlier as we saw with Cortex-A8 in Archos 5 MID in Sept 2008 versus Palm Pre phone in June 2009.

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  3. Brian, don’t forget you actually had OMAP3430 inside a handset Samsung’s i8910 one month earlier in May ;-) Looking forward to the Satio and other OMAP3 handsets later in the year – Nokia????

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    1. Thanks Ronak. With over 40 products in the pipeline, and with my focus on future processors, it is hard to keep track of all the phone release dates. Also, I only knew both of these phones by their previous codenames which makes it more difficult! Look forward to more exciting products coming this year.

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  4. [...] Texas Instruments is betting that a more powerful cell phone, one that uses identical computing cores working in parallel inside the application processor, a setup it calls symmetric multicore processing, will be here as soon as 2011. Such phones, which will be built with multicore ARM-based chips, will allow for faster processing on mobile phones without sacrificing battery life.GigaOm [...]

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  5. [...] « Amdahl’s law in the multicore era The multicore mobile 30/06/2009 Gigaom reported last week on Texas Instruments waxing lyrical about multicore mobiles. According to the [...]

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  6. [...] and are increasingly mimicking the functionality of a full-fledged PC. New capabilities such as multicore processors in phones and the ability to send HDMI video out mean that the brains inside our phones need more performance [...]

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  7. [...] idea of smartphones with multiple processor cores isn’t a new one — last year I talked to Texas Instruments about it, and earlier this year Qualcomm said it would release a dual-core processor that could hit [...]

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  8. They really need to work on improving the battery life on smartphones. Should be the #1 priority. They finally figured it out for laptops. Smart phones should be next.

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    1. Power is high priority with every decision made in the smartphone silicon. The situation is different than the laptops that started out with high-power process. With each smartphone generation (in low-power process), performance is increasing 3-5x to meet consumer demands, and battery technology is not improving much which works against it. On top of this the screens are getting bigger (4″ +) which is a big part of the power budget. We have made incredible decreases in silicon power consumption at every process node with a large toolbox of techniques. In the end we have increased audio playtime from 20 hours to 140 hours in the past few generations and can do 1080p video in power that is less than VGA in the past. Lots more performance in the same power budget – incredible progress has been made. This is one way to look what is happening – features/capabilities increase within the same power budget over time in smartphones.

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  9. [...] I’ve been writing about multicore phones for a while, mostly because I’ve been eagerly awaiting the day my phone becomes powerful enough to be my [...]

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