Nvidia says first $199 'Kai' tablets set for unveiling this year

Kai is a reference design for a low-cost 7-inch tablet to compete with the Kindle Fire

The first tablets based on Nvidia's Kai platform, which is being built to enable quad-core, 7-inch Android devices for around $200, will be announced in the second half of the year, an Nvidia executive said this week.

"During the course of the second half of the year you'll see a number of partners start to announce their $199 Tegra 3-based tablets," said Ujesh Desai, Nvidia's head of product marketing, in an interview at the Computex trade show in Taipei.

He wouldn't name the manufacturers but said there will be a mix of top-tier and lesser known vendors. "I think you'll be surprised," he said.

Kai was announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January and is an effort by Nvidia to produce a reference design for a 7-inch tablet that offers a reasonable level of performance at a low price.

That's a difficult challenge, as even Nvidia admits. "The truth is, it's incredibly difficult to manufacture a low-cost tablet at all, even with a compromised experience," it said in a blog post this week. But apparently it thinks it has found a way.

Kai tablets are intended in large part for fast-growing, developing markets such as China, but some models will likely be sold in the U.S. as well, Desai said.

Amazon's Kindle Fire, perhaps the best-selling 7-inch tablet, is already on sale for $199, but Amazon is thought to subsidize its price through the additional products it sells through the device from its online store.

Android tablets can also be bought online from little known companies for less than $100, but the quality varies widely.

Aside from the Tegra 3, devices based on the Kai platform won't have top-end components, but Nvidia thinks it can design a $199 product with acceptable performance. It can achieve this in part by using its DirectTouch and PRISM technologies to reduce component costs for manufacturers, Desai said.

DirectTouch off-loads processing work required for the touch interface onto the Tegra CPU, meaning manufacturers don't need to use a discrete touch controller. PRISM can adjust the colors of pixels on a display to reduce the required level of brightness. That allows manufacturers to use cheaper displays, Desai said, and the display is the most expensive part of a tablet.

Nvidia isn't saying yet who'll make and sell Kai tablets. It seems likely that models will be offered with different configurations, which means some could drift over the $200 price point. Intel experienced a similar problem with ultrabooks, with the first models coming out above its intended price range.

But some people can't afford a more expensive tablet, or want the option of a low-cost model to give to a young son or daughter, Desai said.

Asustek Computer is another vendor developing a low-cost tablet -- it announced the $249 Eee Pad MeMo at CES in January. But it didn't provide a shipping date at the time and hasn't said much about the product since then. Some think it will be reborn as an implementation of the Kai design.

Kai is primarily focussed on Android, but there's no reason the platform couldn't be used for Windows RT, according to Desai. The license price for a Windows OS would seem to preclude the chance of a $199 Windows 8 tablet, however. One IDC analyst this week estimated the first Windows 8 tablets will cost $500 to $700, though Microsoft hasn't said.

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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