Tablets getting quad-core chips, face slow adoption

Quad-core chips will reach tablets starting in September, but adoption may not be widespread

Tablets with low power dual-core chips have just started reaching the market, but some chip makers expect the devices to be further supercharged later this year with quad-core chips which were in the spotlight at the Computex trade show in Taipei.

Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments discussed new quad-core ARM-based chips, and said that tablets powered by these chips may reach shelves starting later this year. The chips will also go into lightweight laptops, smartphones and devices such as handheld gaming consoles that need speedy performance.

Major tablet makers have not yet announced quad-core tablets, and analysts said it could be a while before the devices are adopted. Nvidia said at the show that it is working with device makers, but did not disclose names.

The chips will run applications faster and turn tablets into multimedia powerhouses. However, quad-core chips could be power hogs, and tablet applications may need to be rewritten to take full advantage of the hardware features, which could be a challenge, according to the analysts.

Nvidia demonstrated a tablet running on its upcoming quad-core Tegra chip code-named Kal-El, which the company said will provide better graphics performance while consuming less power. TI's new OMAP4470 and Qualcomm's Snapdragon APQ8064 offer better overall performance and can run on tablets with Microsoft's upcoming Windows operating system.

Quad-core chips could make tablets formidable and bring a PC-like experience, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. However, the faster performance will come at the cost of power, as continuous use of all CPUs could drain battery quickly.

Intense applications such as high-definition graphics are notoriously power hungry, and dual-core tablets already offer strong multimedia and application performance, King said.

"I wouldn't expect to see tablets powered by quad-core chips in the near term," King said.

Tablets may not immediately need quad-core processors, but the chips will be used to differentiate devices, said Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat.

"[Tablets] will have them because of an effort to differentiate on performance. Don't get me wrong, they will probably make sense in the future as usage models and applications on the devices change," McGregor said.

The viability of quad-core chips in tablets also depends on how effectively applications take advantage of the hardware features. A basic advantage of quad-core in contrast to dual-core processors is the ability to wrest greater chip performance by efficiently spreading tasks over twice as many cores.

"That depends on how effectively developers can rewrite programs to best leverage those technologies. Historically, a radical shift in core count has usually demanded a steep learning curve for programmers," King said.

Mobile chip makers are continuously packing more cores to remain competitive, and are also coming up with innovative designs aimed at preserving battery life on devices. TI's new OMAP4470 is based on a hybrid design with two high-performance CPU cores running at 1.8GHz, and two low-power processor cores running at 200MHz to run secondary applications such as screen orientation. Devices with the chip will reach market early next year, TI said.

As an alternative to CPU cores, chip vendors are also leaning toward integrating more independent cores dedicated to specific tasks like graphics.

Nvidia, known primarily as a graphics company, is touting the multimedia capabilities in its latest Kal-El chip, calling it a "super-chip" that reflects the "future of gaming" in a blog entry. The chip can top 1080p video with the ability to play 1440p video content on a 2560 by 1600 pixel resolution panel.

Nvidia also claimed that the chip offers twice the Web browsing performance than its current Tegra 2, which is currently used in tablets from Motorola, LG and Dell. Kal-El will appear in devices starting in September, Nvidia said at Computex.

Qualcomm claimed the speed crown with its upcoming APQ8064 chip, which is targeted at tablets and PCs. The chip will run at speeds of up to 2.5GHz and its cores can be independently clocked up or shut down to make the chip more power efficient. Qualcomm has said that the device will offer twelve times the performance as well as 75 percent lower power than earlier Snapdragon processors. Qualcomm at Computex said that the chip will start sampling early next year for device makers to test.

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