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Buying an Android phone can be overwhelming. As if the sheer variety of choices on offer wasn’t difficult enough, manufacturers use jargon that confuses the buyer.

You might think an octa-core processor is better than a quad-core, because eight cores is better than four cores. But that’s not always the case.

Technology is complicated. The job of a marketer is to simplify it for buying decisions, but often at the cost of full honesty. “More is better” is an easy formula for this. But just like more megapixels don’t necessarily mean better image quality What Is A Megapixel? What Is A Megapixel? Megapixels are one of the most common ways of advertising the quality of cameras, especially relatively low-end cameras aimed at the mass market likes the ones in typical smartphones. Read More , more cores don’t necessarily mean a faster processor.

More Cores Don’t Mean Better Processors

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Just in case the previous two sentences weren’t clear enough, let’s re-iterate: the performance of your processor isn’t going to increase just by adding cores. There is a lot more to it. We’ve explained how a processor core works What Is A Processor Core? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Is A Processor Core? [MakeUseOf Explains] Every computer has a processor, whether it's a small efficiency pro or a large performance powerhouse, or else it wouldn't be able to function. Of course, the processor, also called the CPU or Central Processing... Read More , but it’s important to know that each core is one small part of the overall performance of a processor.

Each core is a processing unit (the “PU” or “CPU”), but more units are better only if the processor and the software is designed in a way to take advantage of those extra units. Think of it this way: If you have eight cooks working on one dish in the kitchen, you need to be able to manage all of them so that you are maximizing efficiency.

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There are multiple factors that dictate the efficiency of those eight cores. It depends on the CPU’s frequency, software designed to take advantage of all cores, and the chip’s design and architecture itself.

The biggest culprit is usually software. For example, mobile games are often optimized to use multiple cores to deliver better performance. However, that’s not the case with all games, but more importantly, it’s not the case with all applications. In fact, most apps are developed to use one or two cores at most. However, the processor still activates all its cores and the other elements on the chip, and thus your battery life will be affected.

Processor Architecture and ARM vs. Intel

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The processor might look like a little square chip, but there’s a lot of complex circuitry involved. Each processor has elements like the cores, the memory cache, the logic gates, and so on. You don’t need to know what these do, but if you’re interested, you can find out more about the details of processor design. What you need to know is this: the design of the processor has a large impact on its performance.

By defining how logic gates work, by arranging the circuitry between the cache and the cores, and by making several other such tweaks, a dual-core can be better than a quad-core processor, and a quad-core can be better than an octa-core processor.

There are several chipset developers for Android phones, but there are two major architectures involved: ARM and Intel. These two companies have their own ideas of how your processor should work for better performance. Many chipset manufacturers like Qualcomm, Samsung, NVIDIA, and Mediatek use ARM’s reference designs to build processors. Intel makes its own processors based on its architecture.

ARM

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ARM is the market leader in mobile chipsets due to its partnerships with the aforementioned chipset manufacturers, with Intel a distant second. If you’re buying a smartphone, chances are, you’ll be checking out something running on ARM. Matt has a detailed explanation of what is an ARM processor Today’s Tablets & Tomorrow’s Computers – What Is an ARM Processor? Today’s Tablets & Tomorrow’s Computers – What Is an ARM Processor? If you’ve paid any attention to smartphones and tablets you’ve likely heard of the term "ARM" used to refer to the hardware inside. It’s thrown around left and right, often as a point of differentiation... Read More , but here’s what you need to know in terms of cores.

ARM pioneered the big.LITTLE ideology for processor cores, where chips would have two quad-core processors (a cumulative eight cores). One set of quad-core processors was about maximum performance; the other set was focussed on efficiency, particularly with battery and heat. Usually, these two sets operate independently, except in rare cases.

Most Android smartphones today ship with ARM-based chips, which are manufactured by the likes of Qualcomm, Samsung, Mediatek, NVIDIA and several other companies.

Intel

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Intel has been taking giant strides with its mobile processor technology, catching up to ARM-based processors. Generally, you still won’t find Intel’s chips on many phones, but manufacturers like ASUS and Lenovo (also long-time Intel partners for their PC division) have adopted Intel as their preferred chipset partner for Android smartphones.

That said, Intel has stuck with just a quad-core ideology, as opposed to the dual set of quad-cores that ARM pushes for.

Things get a little more complicated with Intel since it also has a different line of processors for laptops, which is also used in 2-in-1 tablets. The new Intel Core M is a great processor Intel Core M: What's so Great About the Processor? Intel Core M: What's so Great About the Processor? The Intel Core M is the most hyped processor in years, and with good reason: it's at the heart of a new revolution in laptops. Read More , but don’t be concerned about that for mobile phones.

So What Is an Octa-Core and Why Doesn’t It Matter?

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“Octa” means “eight”, so the dual quad-core processor ideology of big.LITTLE is technically an octa-core processor too. However, that’s not how it’s marketed, for the simple fact that all eight cores aren’t running simultaneously.

This is why some manufacturers advertise “True octa-cores”, which is when all eight cores are processing at the same time.

However, the funny thing is that no application at the time of writing is coded to take advantage of that kind of power, let alone the fact that most applications don’t need it. In fact, even the latest Android games run fine on a quad-core processor (provided it’s backed up by a good graphics processor) and don’t have any requirement for eight cores.

Does a true octa-core processor have the technical might to perform faster than a quad-core? Yes. But if tasks can’t go any faster than what you get with a quad-core processor, then an octa-core is pointless.

Not All Quad-Cores and Octa-Cores are Equal

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Apart from the number of cores, the core itself can be different. This is best illustrated with ARM’s Cortex-A series of processors, which is the most widely used series around. The Cortex-A series has the following processors in its family, from most powerful to least powerful: A72, A57, A53, A17, A15, A9, A7, A5.

The Mediatek MT6592 (first announced in 2013) is still a popular octa-core processor used in several budget Android phones. The MT6592 has eight ARM Cortex A7 cores running at the same time, clocked between 1.7GHz to 2GHz.

Meanwhile, the NVIDIA Tegra 4 (announced around the same time in 2013) was a quad-core processor running on ARM A15 cores. However, since its cores were of a better quality, the Tegra 4 comfortably out-performed the MT6592 in most synthetic benchmark tests.

There you have it, a quad-core that is better than an octa-core. There are countless other examples like this in the mobile world.

What Matters in Buying the Right Processor?

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Processor architecture is a complex subject. There are several other factors that go into making a good CPU for your phone, such as the manufacturing process. And processors alone are also not indicative of actual device performance.

So the biggest takeaway here is not to look at terms like “quad-core” and “octa-core” to decide the best processor for you. Instead, overall device performance is what matters. Before you buy a phone, look for a review online; chances are, you will find someone who has done a detailed performance check, and even compared it to competitors.

How Marketing Deceives You

The “octa-core versus quad-core” processors debate is a classic example of how companies use marketing to deceive a customer. Simple numbers are easier to promote, and the customer is duped into caring about these numbers when they have minimal real-world effect on the performance of the device. What other “marketing lies” do you think tech companies should stop pushing?

Image credits: SSCREATIONS / Shutterstock.com, blickpixel, catchke2ro, groenmen, geralt, ARM, Intel

  1. Anthony Ferraro
    August 30, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    In desktop CPUs this argument is irrelevant. Yes, you might have ONE app using 1-2 cores, but you NEVER have one app! An octa-core CPU will outperform a quad due to this, not the idiotic "one app analogy". This article also fails to account for the workload of the rig in question.

  2. Gaurav “Dexterouz” Pandey
    May 26, 2015 at 5:23 am

    Yes, that's true. He just copied that entire content from quora :P http://www.quora.com/Why-is-quad-core-better-then-octa-core

  3. Pradip Shah
    May 26, 2015 at 2:08 am

    "but manufacturers like ASUS and Lenovo (also long-time Intel partners for their PC division) have adopted Intel as their preferred chipset partner for Android smartphones." Or strong armed to make that choice?

  4. Andrew Gulak
    May 26, 2015 at 1:29 am

    Is this also true of desktop processors? I have two 8 cores (AMD FX-9370 and a Vishera 8350) And they both blow my admittedly older AMD Phenom II 455 and my Core i7 away. But that could be simply because the AMD is a few years old, and the i7 is in a laptop.

  5. Arpit Kharbanda
    May 24, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    The preferability of Quad v. Octa core depends on on many things - in particular application/workload. It also depends on what metric is to be optimised (cost, power, energy efficiency).

    For phone application processors, there is little evidence that it is possible to exploit eight processors to increase performance; indeed, there is little evidence that more than two can be exploited. If this is the case, then all adding extra processors does is increase cost - assuming unused processors draw no power.

    However, many octal-core processors do not offer eight identical cores; they offer two sets of four-cores, each set offering different power/performance tradeoffs. It is possible that by swapping between the different processors according to the computer load, it could be possible to optimise the over power performance of the system . However, at present there seems to be little evidence that this can be done in practice, and there are good reasons to think that a dual (high-power/high-performance) plus uni- (low-power/low-performance) solution might be better.

    In other spaces, such as server, where the workload can support the use of eight processors, there can be advantages to have an octa- (or greater) core. These workloads are truly compute limited (that is, there in plenty of memory bandwidth available) and environment can tolerate the power consumption of eight-core simultaneously.

    Some cases, the 4 core > 8 Core, like,
    The speedup of a program using multiple processors in parallel computing is limited by the time needed for the sequential fraction of the program. check the Amdahl's law for detail.

    Cache and memory will share between 8 cores. it will be much more overhead than 4 core on cache coherent messages.

    By same die size and power budget goal, the 4 core system will have large cache and higher frequency.

    • Mihir Patkar
      May 25, 2015 at 10:04 am

      Yup, technically you're right, but we're restricting ourselves to Android processors here, not the general concept of an octa-core vs quad-core :)

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