Besides the operating system, one of the more important components you need to look out for when you purchase a new smartphone, is the underlying hardware. If you are looking for a smartphone that can handle intensive operations (e.g., gaming), it is imperative that you get one that can give you the speed and smooth experience that you need. In this day and age, mobile processors have multiple variants, such as single or multi-core chips and different clock speeds. Here are some of the essential basics:
Desktop and notebook computers generally use an x86 processor from Intel or AMD, while smartphones and tablets adopt an ARM (Advanced RISC Machine) processor. ARM processors are designed mostly for low power consumption, making them ideal for mobile devices with a finite battery mileage, such as tablets and smartphones.
Furthermore, most ARM based processors aren't just processors in name; they are also system-on-chips (SoC) with graphics processing capabilities built-in, such as Qualcomm's Adreno GPU. This design helps to save space and cut down on power consumption by consolidating its GPU within its processor. While the integrated GPU won't give you the graphics rendering power from discrete chips, it does have merits in handling resource-heavy games and providing a semblance of a decent gaming experience.
Thanks to ARM's licensing system, hardware manufacturers have taken it upon themselves to design their own chips. To date, these are the more common ARM processor brands that have made it onto smartphones: Texas Instruments, Samsung, Apple, Qualcomm and NVIDIA. In Apple's case, the advantage lies with the company being able to design and optimize their chips for their hardware and software. In particular, Apple has implemented its dual-core A5 chip on the iPhone 4S.
Smartphones these days come with a dual-core processor, with Qualcomm's Snapdragon processors proving to be a common sighting amongst smartphones in 2011. The benefits of a multi-core processor allows multithreaded programs to make full use of the various cores, thus improving the overall performance. However, apps are still the crucial bottleneck in this area. Though hardware manufacturers have been actively catching up with each other with faster and more powerful processors, the effort will be lost if apps aren't able to fully utilize the raw power of these multi-core processors.
Furthermore, when more cores are in use, the overall power consumption will become a point of contention. Herein lies the question (and an issue of contention) - do you need to have a phone that comes with a much stronger processing power but poor battery mileage? Fortunately, companies such as NVIDIA have taken this into consideration with its latest quad-core Tegra 3 processor, which includes a fifth CPU core called the Companion core. This fifth core executes low-powered tasks like when on active standby, as well as handling music or video playback. Should apps require more resources and processing power, the quad identical ARM Cortex A9 CPUs are activated accordingly to raise the level of intensity needed for differing tasks. Quad-core smartphones are said to hit the market in the first quarter of 2012.
So what sort of processor or how many cores should your ideal phone have?
While there's much hoo-haa over multi-core processors, there's not much benefit to these cores when there's little software specially written to harness the power (at the time of publishing). Do note that many single-core smartphones already provide ample and sufficient power for day-to-day tasks. So for most users, the type of processor used shouldn't really be a determining factor.
You should however focus to see how responsive the phone is when trying out apps and multi-tasking - more on this on the next point.
Having multiple cores running concurrently is only just one aspect of the processor. Clock speeds also determine the processing power and overall smoothness of the experience. To date, most new smartphones are running at clock speeds from 1.2GHz and above. In certain cases, manufacturers prefer to reduce the clock speed in lieu of reducing the load on the smartphone's power consumption.
Does higher speed equate better performance? Yes and no. Though it does help in speeding up the user interface and overall loading times of your apps, this is still subjected to the optimization of the software. And that goes beyond the operating system, to the customized user interface and how apps call upon the processing power.
Speed isn't everything. An older processor can be overclocked to a higher speed, but it might not have the necessary power efficiency as a newer chip with a more manageable clock speed.