Ballmer, Big Bird and Desmond Tutu enliven Qualcomm's big night at CES

The chip maker put on quite a show but found time to announce a new family of Snapdragon chips, the 800 series

Qualcomm called on some big names to ensure its opening-night keynote at the International CES wasn't a dud. Steve Ballmer, Big Bird, the pop group Maroon5, and even former Archbishop Desmond Tutu all made appearances to keep things rolling along.

The chip company was under pressure to put on a good show, having taken over the opening spot from Microsoft, which bowed out of CES last year. Movie director Guillermo del Toro, Nascar champion Brad Keselowski and an actress from the upcoming Star Trek film also took the stage with Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs.

Qualcomm's Snapdragon chips are used in many of the most popular smartphones and tablets, and its presence on CES's opening night reflected the strong emphasis on mobile at the show, and the diminishing role of the PC.

To ensure there was at least some substance to the event, Jacobs announced a new family of Snapdragon chipsets that will appear in phones and tablets later this year. The Snapdragon 800 series processors are "the most advanced wireless chips ever built," according to Jacobs.

They'll give a significant, 70 percent performance boost over Qualcomm's current Snapdragon line-up, Jacobs claimed. The chipsets include a quad-core CPU, with each core running at 2.3GHz -- "faster than many laptops," he said -- and support playback of HD video at 30 frames per second.

Smartphones and tablets with the 800 series chips will be able to both play and record video in so-called Ultra HD, the next wave of high-definition video. They'll support LTE+ for high-speed downloads and bring "console-quality gaming on a mobile device," he said.

The chips will "be in your hands in the second half of this year," Jacobs said.

But most of the night was given over to a string of celebrities and other notables, some of whom seemed only tenuously connected to Qualcomm.

Steve Ballmer was the first big surprise, bounding out on stage only 15 minutes into Jacobs' presentation. Jacobs had mentioned that even Windows now runs on ARM-based processors, giving Ballmer his cue to appear.

The Microsoft CEO seemed to feel at home in front of the CES crowd, and with his booming voice it was easy to forget that it was Jacobs who was supposed to be in charge. Ballmer showed off some of the latest tablets and smartphones running Windows RT and Windows Phone 8 on Qualcomm's Snapdragon chips.

Movie director del Toro played a clip from one of his goriest films, which included some of the most gruesome scenes that have probably ever been shown at CES, including a man eviscerating himself on a sword. "Now I'm going to the prime rib bar," del Toro quipped afterwards.

The clip was shown playing on a tablet running the new 800 series chips, somewhat justifying his presence. Del Toro also talked about how technology and digital effects are "allowing creation to keep up with the imagination."

Former Archbishop Tutu appeared in a video-taped segment when Jacobs was discussing Qualcomm's Tricorder X Prize, a competition to build a handheld device that can monitor and diagnose health issues.

"Mobile is going to have a transformative impact on health here and in Africa," Tutu said.

Maroon5 played out the evening with its song "Payphone."

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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