Samsung Galaxy S II: Two Different CPUs an Issue for One Phone

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Samsung’s Galaxy S 4G has only just arrived and been reviewed, but smartphone power users are already salivating over the Samsung Galaxy S II, a dual-core update that was shown off at last month’s Mobile World Congress event. With the faster processor and improved graphics, the Android handset can record and play back 1080p high-definition video and is expected to be a performance powerhouse for applications and web browsing. One would think that like other Galaxy S handsets, the phone would use a Samsung processor, but that’s not always going to be the case.

Samsung’s first dual-core processor was expected to power the Galaxy II S, and in some regions of the world, it will. But the company either can’t ramp-up chip production fast enough, or simply expects demand for the phone to be greater than the processor supply: Nvidia has confirmed to ITProPortal that Tegra 2 will be used on some production runs for the Galaxy II S. That’s another feather in the cap for Nvidia, whose chip is also inside the Motorola Atrix phone, Xoom tablet and several other upcoming handsets.

While most consumers don’t know or care about the brand of silicon inside their mobile device, one aspect to this chip situation could become a factor. In order to demonstrate the graphical capabilities of its Tegra 2, Nvidia has worked with developers to optimize applications for the chip. Earlier this week, the company launched its Tegra Zone application in the Android Market to help consumers find these optimized games. I’ve seen the fruits of that labor and admit that the Tegra-optimized apps look more fluid than their non-optimized counterparts. And in some cases, the extra game levels are part of the Tegra Zone software: another win for the consumer holding the phone with a Tegra 2 chip inside.

So what then, happens to someone who buys the Samsung Galaxy S II and gets one with the Samsung processor? I suspect these handsets won’t be able to take full advantage of the Tegra-optimized apps. The only way that they could would be if Samsung’s dual-core processor essentially offered the exact same graphics capabilities as the Tegra 2. But the graphics are part of Nvidia’s “secret sauce” in Tegra 2: a custom version of the Cortex-A9 architecture licensed from ARM Holdings. Graphics are Nvidia’s core competency and strength, a differentiating factor when it comes to smartphone silicon.

Indeed, I circled back to an Nvidia contact this morning by email and found that the Tegra optimized apps will run on non-Tegra devices, but the “best performance/graphics come from Tegra 2 devices” running the software. That makes sense, but some of the code optimizations may cause issues when running the apps on other silicon: Some comments on the Android Market point out laggy performance and crashes on non-Tegra devices.

We’ve talked before about fragmentation within the Android ecosystem as different handsets have long run different versions of Android. That means developers have often had to tweak their software to get it working on older Android versions. But this is the first time I can remember where the same model handset may not be able to run the same software depending on the brand of chip inside. And a similar situation may be brewing with Qualcomm: Netflix for Android will run on future Qualcomm-powered phones due to a hardware DRM solution. The scenario isn’t officially a Qualcomm exclusive, but what if it were?

I like what these chip companies are doing to advance our device capabilities, but as a consumer, I don’t want to have to worry about the whose chip is powering my phone. Do you?

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