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 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 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 plans to ship the tablet 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. 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," Enderle added.

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

The combination of some lower-cost components and a fast 1.3-GHz 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 since then some bloggers have said they appreciate the performance of the device.

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

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

A portion 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 OS that Google introduced with the Nexus 7 at its Google I/O developer's conference last week in San Francisco.

Google showed how Android 4.1 offers somewhat smoother performance than Android 4.0 during an onstage demonstration using side-by-side smartphones.

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 is the first launched tablet to include the Kai design.

Nvidia has said other low-cost 7-in. tablets will be using 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 the typical visual quality and substantially extended battery life.

Nvidia has said the technology lowers the cost of making displays, the single most expensive component in a tablet. The Nexus 7 display has a 1280 x 800 resolution, and offers 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, the Nexus 7 has lowered that memory cost by deploying just 1 GB. Also, Google and Asus could have deployed a 1.4 GHz Tegra 3 quad-core, but lowered costs by instead using a quad-core processor clocked at 1.3 GHz.

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 Google has further lowered Nexus 7 costs by not including the second camera seen in more expensive tablets like 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."

Wuebbling 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 Google will distinguish the Nexus 7 for long. The answer will have to include how Google uses Android 4.1 and its pure Android approach to running apps, they said.

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 e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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