Speed increases are an expected part of Apple’s iOS device hardware upgrades, but what Apple has up their sleeves for speed enhancements is typically up for debate. The first-generation iPad clocked around 1GHz with the single core A4 processor, and —a year later—Apple bumped the iPad’s chip to dual-core-speed with the A5 processor. While not quite confirming that a quad-core processor will power Apple’s third-generation iPad, we have obtained evidence that suggests Apple is currently working on quad-core iOS devices.

Hidden deep inside the latest iOS 5.1 beta is updated processing-core management software that not only supports the dual-core processing enabled by the A5 iPhone and iPad chip, but also quad-core processing. The references to quad-core iPhone and iPad chips come by way of a hidden panel that describes cores that are supported by iOS device hardware. The updated core management software includes an option of “/cores/core.3,” and this represents a fourth available processing core… more details after the break:

Extremely reliable and knowledgeable people familiar with iOS’s inner workings explained to me that core references begin at “0.” For example: A single core device would be limited to  “/cores/core.0,” and a dual-core device would come in at  “/cores/core.1.” A “core.2″ (which is not referenced in iOS code) would be a triple-core processor according to this labeling method. iOS 5.1 beta 2 now includes core.3, a seemingly quad-core chip from Apple. Below, you can view a comparison between the pre-iOS 5.1 beta iOS core management software and the iOS 5.1 beta version. The dual-core A5 chip, on the bottom, has the “core.1,” and the quad-core chip, on top, supporting iOS 5.1 beta is marked with the “core.3.”

Apple leaving references to quad-core chips in the iOS 5.1 beta is notable because iOS 5.1 is the software currently being tested against the third-generation iPad. In addition, as we previously revealed, Apple is currently testing an unreleased “iPhone 5,1″ against the iOS 5.1-beta software. We cannot conclude that due to iOS 5.1 including quad-core processor references, Apple’s next-generation iPad and iPhone will include a quad-core chip, but it seems reasonable based on Apple starting with a single core chip in 2010 and moving to dual-core in 2011. A quad-core chip in 2012 would fit the pattern. On the technical side, Apple is already rumored to be working on a quad-core “A6″ processor, and such processors were said to be ready in 2012.

Also, Asus just released a quad core Android Tablet and it is unlikely that Apple would let Android tablets get a year out in front before matching the hardware.

The implications of an iOS device with a quad-core processor are vast. A quad-core processor can help devices power very high-resolution displays (such as the rumored iPad 3 with a Retina Display), and even power very advanced software like a rumored Final Cut Pro for iOS. Overall, a quad-core processor should add extra horsepower to gaming and overall operating system navigation, and —as we saw with the iPhone 4S— it will likely make actions like snapping photographs work even quicker. Steve Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson that he would like to reinvent photography, and we think the ability for phones to snap photographs in an insanely quick fashion fits that dream.

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