To be blunt, CTIA 2012 is completely devoid of any new tablet hardware. Well, at least nothing we have not already seen at CES and Mobile World Congress. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any tablet market developments in New Orleans, and TabletPCReview managed to snag a few insights into the near future of tablets at day one of the show.
Consumer tech is often framed in terms of choices, for example: Windows or Mac; Xbox, PlayStation, or Nintendo. Tablet choice currently boils down to Android or iPad, with Windows 8 hoping to make it a three-way race. Judging from Intel’s presence at CTIA, consumers may soon be faced with an additional decision: Intel or ARM.
ARM Dominates Mobile
To date, just about every smartphone or tablet features an ARM processor, typically made by NVIDIA, Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, and Samsung, to name a few. These chipmakers obtain a license for the design from ARM Holdings, which doesn’t make any chips, but owns the rights to the IP.
Intel, the leading notebook chipmaker, doesn’t make ARM chipsets, which is why you don’t see Intel processors in smartphones and mobile tablets. Intel chips are also commonly called x86 chips, with the name derived from the fact that early Intel processors, beginning with the 8086 that launched in 1978, had names ending in “86.”
X86 chips are found in notebooks and desktops, with Intel’s Atom line focused on more portable devices like netbooks.
What About Tablets?
Despite its absence in the tablet and smartphone market, Intel is not ready to cede the space to ARM and its partners. At CES this year, Intel officially unveiled the Atom Z2460, a system-on-a-chip designed specifically for smartphones, and in February 2012, Intel announced its tablet counterpart, the Atom Z2610, both codenamed “Medfield”. Late last year, Android, which was designed and is developed for ARM, started supporting x86 natively. The Cisco Cius, an enterprise video conferencing Android tablet, was one of the first to ship with Intel innards.
Cut to CES in New Orleans, and Intel is poised to stake its claim on the mobile device market. According to reps speaking with TabletPCReview, everything is set and they are simply waiting for partners to jump in and start making Intel Android tablets. In fact, a few already have.
The first Intel Android smartphone, the Lava XOLO X900 went on sale in India last month, and the Lenovo IdeaTab K2110 tablet is poised for an international launch soon.
Android tablets with “Intel inside” are very hard to discern from Android tablets with ARM inside at a glance. From our time with the Lenvo IdeaTab K2110 at CTIA and in the past, we can safely say it operates just like any other ARM-based ICS tablet on the market and offers a similar experience. However, Intel reps were quick to point out the Intel platform advantages, which include superior power management (longer battery life), excellent gaming potential, and superb web rendering performance.
We can’t vouch for two of the three claims, but according to Intel press materials, the IdeaTab K2110 has “all-day battery life” with “30 days of standby.” Intel also had demo stations showing off a racing game that rivaled anything we’ve seen at the NVIDIA booth at CES and MWC. We can back up the web performance claims with some hard benchmarks, however.
In use, the IdeaTab performed well and was extremely stable, though it was running the stock version of Android Ice Cream Sandwich with few apps and widgets, which probably wouldn’t strain even an older NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual-core unit. That said, we’ve never seen Google Maps run as smooth on a tablet, as it typically strains most.
Other Lenovo IdeaTab K2110 specs include:
- 10.1-inch display (1280 x 800)
- 16GB capacity
- 1GB of RAM
- 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi
- Bluetooth 2.1 EDR
- 3G support
- 8-megapixel rear-facing camera, 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera
Also worth noting, the Z2610 Intel Atom processor has a clock speed of 1.6 GHz, which is faster than most, if not all, ARM SoCs.
Fragmentation is a problem that plagues Android. There are too many different handsets and tablets running different versions of the operating system, ranging mostly from Gingerbread (2.3) to Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0). In addition, those different handsets and tablets have different displays of varying sizes, each with one of a handful of resolutions and aspect ratios. Simply put, it makes developing apps that look similar and run consistently across many devices difficult.
If Intel makes a serious dent in the market, you can add processor architecture to the list of fragmentation-causing differentiators as well, both x86 and ARM. According to AnandTech, Intel claims any new apps and future apps should have no issue running on an x86 device, and about 75% of what’s in the Google Play Store should be good to go. Intel will address the remaining 25% through something called binary translation. Without getting too far into the app dev weeds, the process should translate ARM code to x86 code on the fly, and render the problem moot, though there is potential for it to slow down the app. For their part, the Intel reps we spoke with said the process has little to no effect on app performance, and the Intel reps also told us the Google Play and app experience will be the same on Intel Atom-powered tablets as it is on ARM-powered devices.
As stated previously, much of this won’t matter to consumers as Intel tablets will be near indistinguishable from ARM tablets at a glance. One platform may outperform another, but the tablets will operate the same.
Where Intel has an advantage is the familiar Intel logo slapped on Intel products and PCs going back to the 1990s. Consumers may not technically know what “Intel Inside” means, but they know Intel’s reputation for market-leading processors, and Intel branding could sway a buying decision.