MediaTek chip leapfrogs Samsung and Apple (in core count, anyway)

How many cores does your smartphone have? If it's anything less than ten – and it's almost certain to be – then MediaTek has just eclipsed it, its new Helio X20 mobile processor packing a whopping ten cores. The company calls it Tri-Cluster architecture, and is promising the usual mantra of simultaneous power and efficiency. Still, before we discount the chip as just another case of "more is better" thinking, there could well be something to MediaTek's approach.

The rest of the high-end processor crowd is following a dual-architecture strategy, where the chip can switch between one set of high-performance cores and another set of more frugal, low-power cores, depending on what tasks are being asked of it. So, the theory goes, the device can sip power when it's just humming away on background tasks, but still deliver sufficient grunt for games and other demanding software when necessary.

Tri-Cluster sees MediaTek take it one step further: rather than two sets, it has three. At the top end are a pair of ARM Cortex-A72 cores, each running at 2.5GHz, which are brought to bear on games and other intensive apps.

However, there are two other sets of processors, each a cluster of four Cortex-A53 cores. One set takes care of the lowest-power tasks, running at 1.4GHz, while the middle set runs at 2.0GHz.

Keeping everything in check is MediaTek's CorePilot 3.0 heterogeneous computing scheduling algorithm, which sounds complicated but is basically a switchboard for controlling processor and graphics tasks. By juggling which task goes to which core, and which set of clusters are active at any one time, MediaTek says it can cut power consumption by 30-percent versus rival chipsets.

The X20 also supports dual cameras, has an integrated 3D depth engine for depth-of-field processing, and de-noising engines, and can drive compatible phone or tablet displays at up to 120 Hz.

There's also a separate ARM Cortex-M4 powered sensor hub, which can independently do things like listen out for voice-activation commands or play music without rousing the rest of the chipset.

MediaTek is more commonly associated with low- to mid-end processors for more affordable devices, but that focus on delivering satisfactory performance without breaking the bank might well have given the company an unexpected edge in designing the Helio X20. We'll have to wait until the end of the year before it starts showing up in products, however.