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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, more cores don’t necessarily mean a faster processor.
More Cores Don’t Mean Better Processors
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, 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.
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
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 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, 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 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, but don’t be concerned about that for mobile phones.
So What Is an Octa-Core and Why Doesn’t It Matter?
“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
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?
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?