Quad-core phones look speedy, but there’s a catch

It’s now almost a given that the first quad-core smartphone will be shown off at the Mobile World Congress event later this month. Android enthusiast site MoDaCo has benchmark results of such a beast and, as expected, the handset tests twice as fast as recent smartphones, such as the Galaxy Nexus.

The tested phone appears to be LG’s X3, which is rumored to be running Nvidia’s Tegra 3(s nvda) chip on a 4.7-inch high-definition touchscreen with Android 4.0.3(s goog). Those specifications are certainly viable, given that the next crop of flagship handsets will likely run the Ice Cream Sandwich-build of Android on either dual- or quad-core chips.

Even if these specifications are accurate, don’t fall into the trap of relying solely on benchmarks for a phone purchase. My own use of the Asus Transformer Prime — an Android 4.0 tablet that also runs on Nvidia’s Tegra 3 chip — does show a powerful device that benchmarks well, but not one that’s twice as fast as its peers on dual-core chips.

Why? Because very few mobile apps are optimized to take advantage of four processing cores. When optimized, I would expect to see a big performance gain, but that’s a future that may be a long time in coming. Many current Android apps aren’t even optimized for the large screen of a tablet, let alone the specific processor inside of a device.

For apps that are optimized, there are positive noticeable differences. Games optimized for the dozen graphics cores in the Tegra 3, for example, look stellar and provide a console gaming-like experience. You can see for yourself here.

When browsing or using a range of mobile apps, however, there’s little to no difference just yet. Quad-core mobile computing is a very positive step forward, for sure. At the moment, however, we’re waiting for software to catch up to the hardware advances. And that’s completely up to the developers, who, up to this point — at least for Android apps — haven’t been too quick to optimize their code.