When Apple brought out the iPad in 2010, they revived what was thought to be a dead market. By combining the right hardware and software Apple was able to bring tablets back into the forefront of technology for the average consumer, instead of a niche product for industry professionals. The first generation of Android tablets that emerged to join this new market were not all that successful, lacking on both the hardware and software front to really compete toe-to-toe with Apple and it wasn't really until last year that Android tablets became a viable replacement for the iPad with the introduction of Ice Cream Sandwich and later Jelly Bean of the OS as well as ever more powerful Systems on Chips (SoC) such as the Tegra 3. However even with the best hardware currently available Android tablets do find themselves lacking in graphical performance compared to the highly optimised iPad, despite being able to go toe-to-toe when it comes to raw processing power. While this current generation of tablets are by no means a slouch, the next generation will blow them out of the water with ever more powerful hardware and even better software optimisation.
The hardware is the beating heart of the device and it's the hardware that drives the fluid user interface of your tablet. While the Nvidia Tegra 3 was the poster boy for Android tablets of 2012 the technology behind it is now dated and it faces some stiff competition including its younger brother.
The Nvidia Tegra 4 is the next generation SoC that Nvidia debuted at CES back in January and it should be hitting shelves by July. The old Tegra 3 that powers devices such as the Nexus 7 consisted of a high performance quad-core utilising ARM's Cortex-A9 architecture, with a fifth low power companion core that was only utilised during low intensity tasks and idle. Nvidia have stuck with this design philosophy for their latest SoC but will be ARM's new Cortex-A15 architecture that is twice as fast as the older A9. The new CPU will also be partnered with a new GPU comprised 72 cores, meaning it will theoretically have 6 times the graphical performance of the Tegra 3 and twice the CPU performance. All of this extra performance means the Tegra 4 will be capable of higher fidelity graphics with new effects such as self shadowing, better textures, higher frames and a faster interface and according to Nvidia, without having to sacrifice battery life due to the new and improved companion core that will also use the A15 architecture.
According to benchmarks that have been released the new Nvidia Tegra 4 be the new king of the hill when it comes to performance dominating the all other platforms including the 4th generation iPad. All of this extra processing power means the new chipset is capable of even more insane resolutions, the world was blown away by the Retina iPad that had a 2048—1536 display, which was then overshadowed by the Nexus 10 its 2560×1600 display, Tegra 4 will be capable of supporting resolutions up to 3200×2000 and outputting to a 4K resolution through HDMI.
While raw performance for gaming and speed freaks is important, Nvidia also try to differentiate themselves from the competition by offering new software features that can fully exploit the extra power that is unlocked by the four A15 cores and the 72 GPU cores. During CES Nvidia touted the built-in near real-time HDR capabilities of the chipset for both photos and videos. HDR stands for high-dynamic-range is a way for cameras to combat dark and bright areas on a photo by taking multiple shots at different exposure levels and intelligently combining the images to create an image with greater depth, colour and clarity.
HDR on smartphone cameras is nothing new, in fact your current smartphone probably has the feature built-in. The problem with current devices using HDR is that the photo is typically taken over 2 seconds, which means motion-blur becomes an issue because it's near impossible to hold your phone perfectly steady for 2 seconds leading to a blurred image or artefacts and image tearing. Also due to the entire process being done over a couple of seconds it makes the device is incapable of taking HDR video.
Nvidia counter this issue by leveraging the 72 GPU cores, the A15 cores as well as a dedicated image signal processor (ISP) to take multiple pictures in fractions of a second, in 0.2 seconds according to Nvidia, which leads to less distortion and blur as well as enable new features such as HDR burst shot, HDR 1080p videos at 30 frames per second as well as HDR flash and panoramas, all features that current devices can't support properly if at all.
With all these new features, needless to say we are all excited to see the first Tegra 4 devices hit the shelves here at Android Headlines.
Samsung Exynos 5 Octa
Samsung has been partnering their tablets with their own Exynos processors since the original Galaxy Tab and these processors have also found their homes in a number of Samsung smartphones. Now don't let the Octa branding fooling you, the Exynos 5 isn't some monster of a chipset that has 8 cores humming away simultaneously and devour electricity as fast as Pac-Man devours dots. The Exynos 5 Octa is the second generation of Exynos 5 processors from Samsung, the original was only a dual-core that found its home in the Nexus 10 as well as Samsung Chromebooks, while the original Exynos 5 was a mighty chip with the highest single-threaded performance at the time the new Octa promises even more performance and even better battery life.
The Exynos 5 Octa utilises ARM's big.LITTLE design, where four high-power A15 cores are combined with four low power A7 cores and the cores that are being utilised are constantly switching to maximizing performance with the high-performance cores only activating when required. This should theoretically lead to better battery life than the Tegra 4 is most usage scenarios except idle. According to Samsung, by utilising the big.LITTLE architecture there should be a 70% performance boost from previous generations while increasing battery life by 20%. It should be noted that Samsung won't be the only company will be using ARM's big.LITTLE architecture for their chipsets with LG confirming their plans to introduce their own chipset that will use the same design under the name Odin.
The CPU is only part of the picture, the most important part to ensure buttery smooth game play is the GPU and Samsung have decided to partner the Exynos 5 Octa worthy of its CPU performance. The Octa will be using the triple-core PowerSGX544MP3, this is arguably one of the fastest GPUs on the market and should deliver performance somewhere between the SGX543MP3 found in the iPhone 5 and the SGX554MP4 in the iPad 4. While this won't the fastest GPU available, the Exynos 5 is most likely going to find itself inside 1080p devices, so the extra performance of the SGX554MP4 would be wasted. Hopefully later on down the track Samsung will upgrade the GPU to a SGX544MP4 or better because as the Nexus 10 has proved, 2560×1600 displays are possible within a 10 inch tablet.
The other features of the Exynos 5 Octa will be a built-in ISP like the Tegra 4 to increase camera performance and allow devices to have zero shutter lag, however it remains to be seen whether the Exynos 5 will support the advanced HDR features of the Tegra 4. The Exynos 5 will also support USB 3.0 natively. USB 3.0 allows for faster file transfers, up to 10 times the speed of USB 2, which is an important feature if tablets are to replace laptops for portable computing as well as 50% faster charging speeds, essential if you need a quick charge while on the run.
Qualcomm Snapdragon 800
Qualcomm arguably had the best processor at the end of 2012 in the form of the Snapdragon S4 Pro. This chipset found its home in a variety of devices including the Nexus 4, HTC Butterfly, Sony Xperia Z and the LG Optimus G. In 2013 Qualcomm is looking to capitalise on their lead with the release of the Snapdragon 600 which can already be found in the HTC One and variants of the Galaxy S4 and potentially in the new Nexus 7. The Snapdragon 600 is an impressive chipset being the fastest chipset on release, however it has since been overtaken by the Exynos 5 in benchmarks, nonetheless it still packs a punch.
Fortunately Qualcomm does have a trump card up their sleeves, the Snapdragon 800. The new SoC due to be released in Q3 2012 will be packing the brand new Krait 400, which will have not only better clock for clock performance, but also capable of speeds up to 2.3 GHz. If you consider the performance jump from the S4 to the 600, the Snapdragon 800 should be a sight to behold with figures that might leave Qualcomm the king of the chipsets for 2013 as well. While Qualcomm has kept their cards close to their chest but the new 800s should offer CPU performance on par if not better than ARM's Cortex-A15 cores.
Partnered with this new CPU will be a brand new GPU, the Adreno 330. On benchmarks such as 3DMark, the Adreno 320, which can be found on current Qualcomm chipsets has proven itself to be the fastest GPUs on the market even beating the Mali T604 that powers the Nexus 10. Qualcomm even publicly stated that there is a misconception the Nvidia Tegra 3 was the king of graphical performance and the benchmarks do support this. The new Adreno 330 promises to be 50% faster than the 320, so that means higher frame rates and greater graphical fidelity to the end-user. The new GPU will also be capable of 4k and 2k resolution like the Tegra 4 and will support cameras up to 55 megapixels. As to whether or not we'll see a 55 megapixel camera on a phone or tablet this year remains to be seen, but you never know.
Performance is important, but so is battery life; Qualcomm have innovated a lot in this area with Snapdragon SoCs featuring a unique asynchronous core technology that not only allows for dynamic hot plugging (switching cores on and off), but also different clock speeds for different cores to ensure no excess energy is spent. The chipset will also include a new improved GPS, that promises to be more accurate, USB 3.0 and built-in 3G/4G LTE modem. The built-in 4G LTE modem was probably what lead to the Snapdragon S4's wide adoption amongst smartphones around the world as 4G LTE becomes more common. While we haven't heard news of any tablets utilising the Snapdragon 800, the new Nexus 7 is slated to use a Qualcomm chipset (probably the 600), and if that succeeds, we'll probably see a new generation of Snapdragon tablets on the market, which hopefully support mobile data.
With all these talks of new GPUs and CPUs in the upcoming chipsets, tablets will obviously be capable of a lot more processing power. Currently the vast majority of 7 inch tablets have a 720p resolution, but with the emergence of 1080p smartphones, which are capable of fitting a higher resolution in a much smaller footprint, 7 inch 1080p tablets are soon to follow. The new Nexus 7 that will probably be unveiling at Google I/O will most likely be packing a brand new 1920×1080 full HD display, which is greater for consuming media, especially if the native resolution of the videos you wish to watch are 1080p because there is no need for resizing the image, which takes up processing power therefore battery.
The Nexus 10 also proved that is possible to fit a 2560×1600 display into a tablet. While 7 inch tablets are the current talk of the market, sometimes a larger tablet might prove to be more useful, therefore we may see more 10 inch markets supporting this higher resolution. The task of designing such as device would be made a lot easier with the abundance of chipsets capable of rendering the increased pixel count, however tablet makers may stop developing 10 inch tablets in favour of smaller 7 or 8 inch ones.
As important as hardware is when it comes processing power of the device, the software cannot be overlooked when it comes to performance. Steve Jobs once stated that the success of Apple was due to the software optimisation of their devices. It's for this exact reason that the iPad is capable of such a smooth user experience, despite lagging behind in hardware compared to Android tablets. Admittedly when the first generation of Android tablets came out, the software was far from being ready and it wasn't really until Ice Cream Sandwich that Android overtook iOS as a platform if you ask me. The lead brought by ICS was solidified with the performance optimizations brought by Android 4.1 Jelly Bean's Project Butter and subsequent improvements in Android 4.2 in terms of graphics, Android is now capable of a buttery smooth user experience.
Google I/O is now less than a month away, however the latest reports suggest that we won't be seeing Android 5.0 Key Lime Pie as we originally hoped, instead we'll be seeing another version of Jelly Bean now as Android 4.3. This latest iteration of Android will no doubt bring further software improvements and optimizations to get the best out of the hardware that tablets of the future will have packing. After Android 4.3 may finally be the fabled Android 5.0 Key Lime Pie that will hopefully bring even more improvements to performance and battery life.
Regardless of which chipset comes out on top, or which version of Android we'll be seeing, the future of Android tablets looks as bright as ever as they relegate current tablets to the pages of history.