Kai design keeps Google's Nexus 7 tablet fast and priced at $199

Nvidia says the Kai reference design includes 'sacrifices in the right places' that allow cheaper displays and more efficient memory

Google's new $199 Nexus 7 tablet takes advantage of Nvidia's Kai reference design, a proprietary technology that allows for a cheaper display and memory components that work in concert with a high-performance quad-core Tegra 3 processor.

It's the kind of innovation one might expect a vendor to brag about, but Google and hardware partner Asus have yet to tout Kai as a selling point.

Nvidia last week confirmed that the Nexus 7 uses the Kai design, but the company refused to answer questions from Computerworld seeking more information on its use in the much-hyped Google tablet. Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates, said Nvidia, Google and Asus are likely remaining silent about their use of Kai to keep the information away from the makers of other ARM-based tablet processors, such as Qualcomm and Texas Instruments.

Also, Gold noted that too much information could help analysts figure out the actual cost of the device before Google ships the tablet, which it has said it will do in mid-July.

"In the end, Google did select the [Kai] design," remarked Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group, on Monday.

"Once vendors accept a design, they want to be able to talk about it and typically don't want the supplier out mucking up their message," Enderle added. "Google is starting to behave like a hardware original equipment manufacturer and not like a software maker who didn't care about hardware. This is a sign of their growing maturity."

Tom Mainelli, an analyst at IDC, said Google might even hold short-term exclusive rights on Kai, though Nvidia has repeatedly said other tablets will also include the technology.

The combination of some lower-cost components and a fast 1.3GHz quad-core processor have, based on early reviews, apparently kept the Nexus 7's performance high.

Thousands of developers received Nexus 7 tablets from Google last week, and some bloggers have since said that they appreciate the performance of the device.

Kai is also a primary reason that Google and Asus can offer an 8GB version of the tablet for $199, at least according to claims Nvidia had made about the technology as far back as January.

An independent analyst from IHS iSuppli has estimated that the cost of materials and manufacturing for the Nexus 7 could be between $130 to $210.

Some of the Nexus 7's performance in loading apps and Web pages could also be attributed to its use of Android 4.1, or Jelly Bean, the latest version of the mobile operating system, which Google introduced along with the Nexus 7 at its Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco last week.

Google showed how Android 4.1 offers somewhat smoother performance than Android 4.0 during an onstage side-by-side demonstration with two smartphones, one running Jelly Bean and the other running its predecessor

Nvidia first confirmed the use of the Kai reference design in the Nexus 7 tablet in a press release and in a blog posted online just moments after the tablet was unveiled by Google executives. In the post, Nvidia noted that the Nexus 7 will be the first tablet featuring the Kai design to hit the market.

Nvidia has said other low-cost 7-in. tablets will use the Kai design as well.

Because Tegra 3 is a quad-core processor with a fifth battery-saver core, it can improve battery life and provide up to eight hours of HD video playback, Nvidia has said.

The Kai reference design specifically allows Nvidia's PRISM (Pixel Rendering Intensity and Saturation Management) technology to reduce a tablet's backlight power while enhancing pixel color to deliver typical-quality visual images without draining too much power from the battery.

Nvidia has said the technology lowers the cost of making displays, the single most expensive component in a tablet. The Nexus 7 display features 1280 x 800 resolution and supports 720p high-definition viewing.

Nvidia also uses DirectTouch proprietary technology to offload a portion of the touchscreen processing to the Tegra 3 chip.

The use of DirectTouch can lower a tablet's cost by eliminating the need for a separate touch controller, Nvidia officials said in interviews prior to the Nexus 7's launch.

The Kai technology also allows the Nexus 7 to use cheaper DDR3L memory because Kai provides a unique memory controller.

While Kai can support 2GB of memory, Google and Asus kept costs down by deploying just 1GB in the Nexus 7. In another effort at cost-control, the two companies chose to use a 1.3GHz Tegra 3 quad-core processor when they could have used a 1.4GHz quad-core chip.

In a blog post in early June, Matt Wuebbling, director of Tegra product marketing at Nvidia, noted that tablet makers can come up with unique ways to build tablets on top of Kai.

For instance, analysts have noted that Google also tried to control the cost of the Nexus 7 by equipping the device with just one camera, unlike more expensive tablets such as the Galaxy Tab 2 7.0.

Google and Asus also didn't include a 3G or 4G radio in the device, further lowering the price.

Wuebbling said that Kai is a "recipe that tablet makers can reference when designing and building low-cost, quad-core Android tablets."

He added: "Does Kai make sacrifices? Sure it does. It has to. But it makes these sacrifices in the right places, with many options for our partners to deliver the right solution to the market for consumers."

With other Kai-design Android tablets expected in coming months, some analysts wondered how long Google's Nexus 7 will stand apart from the competition. The answer, they said, will depend in part on the way Google uses Android 4.1 and its pure Android approach to running apps.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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