Intel, Nvidia face off in tablet arena

Chip giant looks to unseat Arm

Intel is ramping up efforts to push low-power Atom chips in the burgeoning category of tablet devices, a market where the chip giant, which dominates netbooks, faces tough competition from competitors like Nvidia.

Many tablets were announced or shown at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, most of which were based on Arm designs. However, a few tablets based on Intel chips also made an appearance.

Tablets, which are also called slates by PC makers, are handheld devices with touch screens slightly larger than those of smartphones. The devices allow users to surf the Internet, play games, view movies or read e-books. Dell showed a tablet during a press event, but declined to talk about the hardware inside the device.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed off a tablet made by Hewlett-Packard that runs Windows 7. HP declined to comment on the hardware inside the tablet, though the company's chief technology officer, Phil McKinney, in an interview said the chip was based on the x86 architecture. PC maker Viliv also showed a tablet running on Intel's Atom Z-series processor.

Intel faces an especially big challenge from Nvidia, which at CES launched the low-power Tegra 2 processor based on an Arm design.

Nvidia also showed off many tablets based on its latest Tegra 2 processor at its booth: Innovative Converged Devices and T-Mobile exhibited Vega tablets with multiple screen sizes, and a concept Asus tablet was also on display. Nvidia said Tegra 2 is targeted at devices with 5-inch to 15-inch screens, and the dual-core processor can play back 1080p high-definition video while conserving battery life.

While Nvidia exuded confidence about its prospects in the tablet category, Intel executives took a pragmatic approach.

"We're certainly pursuing some designs and have won some designs with Atom," said Tom Kilroy, vice president of the sales and marketing group at Intel, in an interview.

The approach to the tablet market is no different than Intel has taken in entering other new categories, Kilroy said. Intel launched the Atom chips for the category of netbooks -- low-cost laptops with small screens and keyboards. Millions of netbooks with Atom chips have been sold, and the category is continuing to grow at a fast pace, Kilroy said.

Arm has, however, earned the name as an incumbent in the mobile chip space, Kilroy said.

"[Arm has] earned the position they have got. We're new entering that category and we're realistic about that," he said. Intel has a benefit of a strong software ecosystem, but unseating a competitor like Arm is no easy task, Kilroy said.

Nvidia has stressed that tablets need mobile chips that can provide long battery life, an area where Arm designs hold an advantage over Intel designs. Arm processors are used in most smartphones, and are starting to appear in more computing devices like low-cost laptops and tablets.

While Intel holds the upper position in the netbook space, Arm-based chips are making their presence felt in low-cost devices like smartbooks. Lenovo launched the Arm-based Skylight smartbook at CES, while HP said it was developing such a device.

Intel didn't comment on the specific Atom chips that would be targeted at tablets. The company offers multiple Atom chips for netbooks and embedded devices, and recently announced the new Pine-Trail platform for netbooks, which achieves higher levels of integration to fit into smaller devices.

Kilroy also said that the company is pushing further into mobile Internet devices and smartphones. Devices based on its upcoming Moorestown platform would come towards the end of the year, Intel CEO Paul Otellini said in a keynote speech on Thursday. Otellini showed the LG Electronics GW990, its first smartphone based on Moorestown,

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