Quad-core chips boost tablet price vs. performance battle

New Asus $249 quad-core tablet set to take on cheaper tablets running single core chips

Leader 7-in. tablet
Leader International marketing manager Yanbo Wu displays the company's 7-in. tablet that uses an ARM Cortex-A8 single-core processor. The tablet sells for $179. (Photo by Patrick Thibodeau / Computerworld)

LAS VEGAS -- Attendees at the Consumer Electronics Show here are seeing the tablet market splitting in multiple directions as the price versus performance battle intensifies.

Nvidia is pushing the performance of its quad-core Tegra 3 processor, which the company demonstrated Monday on a new Asus 7-in., $249 tablet. The Asus tablet will run the Android 4, or Ice Cream Sandwich operating system.

Asus officials did not disclose the release date for the new tablet.

Meanwhile, Leader International Inc., which launched last year, announced more quietly at CES that it plans to release a 7-in. tablet for $179 by the end of the current quarter. The Android 4-based Leader device will run a single-core ARM chip.

Tablets are everywhere at CES, and Nvidia is clearly working to put a premium on performance as device prices apparently fall rapidly.

But no vendor can ignore price, and that's why the Asus device was the headline at a Nvidia CES press conference set to tout the performance of the Tegra 3, which succeeded Nvidia's dual-core chip.

Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang set the stage for the unveiling of the new Asus tablet by demonstrating the performance of its quad-core chip on the Asus Transformer Prime, a laptop and tablet hybrid with a detachable screen that was released late last year.

Huang ran photo editing and game playing applications on the Asus Transformer Prime, which also runs the Tegra 3.

The updated processor improves performance and also offers users a method for managing power through technology Nvidia has dubbed "variable symmetric processing." The technology allows the chip to shut down cores when the processing power isn't needed, thus improving battery life.

The Tegra 3 chip includes a fifth core that Huang described as a "Ninja core," a low-power core for less demanding tasks.

Jerry Shen, the CEO of Asus, didn't fully describe the capabilities of the new company's 7-in. tablet, but instead focused mostly on the price tag and the device's use of the Tegra 3 chip.

Separately, Yanbo Wu, marketing manager at Leader, noted that at $179, the company's 7-in. in. tablet "is cheaper than the majority of the tablets out there." The Leader device will have 4 GB of flash memory but will accept an SD card with 16 GB.

Leader's device will run an ARM Cortex-A8 single-core processor, and will have about eight hours of battery life, said Wu. The tablet is intended for everyday tasks, such as Web browsing and email.

Each Leader tablet ships with a case, Wu added.

Leader currently sells a Tegra 2-based 9.7-in. tablet for $299 at Sears and Kmart, among other retailers.

"Price is always an important factor," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64, a semiconductor consulting firm. But the performance capability in the Asus 7-in. tablet, thanks to Nvidia's processor and graphics capabilities, will matter even for Web browsing and email.

"There's going to be such a night and day difference in the experience between those two products," Brookwood said. "Unless you are really cash constrained, the $249 product is just going to leave that $179 product in the dust."

To Leader's credit, said Brookwood, it plans to put the latest Android OS on the new tablet, an upgrade from many of the tablets available today that ship with older versions of the open source operating system.

Quad-core chips can dramatically improve performance at the same or less power consumption than dual-core or even single-core chips, said Brookwood.

Each time you load a new Web page, the processor has to go into high gear to convert the HTML representation into graphic format. Browsers today are optimized to take advantage of the multiple cores and distribute the workload, delivering a rapid response, said Brookwood.

At the Nvidia event, Huang said the company plans to add other improvements to its systems, such as a technology that speeds touch responses.

Called "direct touch," Huang said it takes the analog to digital conversion signals directly into the processor and by using the fifth core, "it will allow us to sample your touch many times higher than the best touch controller," a performance he characterized as "buttery smooth."

Want more on CES? See our roundup of everything you need to know from CES and our interactive chart of top CES product launches.

Follow our staffers live from CES in Las Vegas Jan. 9-12 on Twitter @Computerworld/CES or via our CES 2012 RSS feed.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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