Tech Guides

HardwareZone's Tablet Buying Guide Essentials

By Seow Tein Hee - 22 Nov 2011


Brains of the Tablet

Besides the operating system, one of the more important components you need to look out for when you purchase a new tablet, is the underlying hardware. There are numerous factors to consider, one of which is the processor that determines the speed and smooth experience you'll get out of the tablet. The brains of the tablet, as we prefer to call it, have multiple variants, such as single or multi-core chips and different clock speeds. Here are the basics you need to know about processors on tablets.

Lending an ARM

Desktop and notebook computers generally use an x86 processor from Intel or AMD, while smartphones and tablets adopt an ARM (Advanced RISC Machine) processor. ARM processors are designed mostly for low power consumption, making them ideal for mobile devices with a finite battery mileage, such as tablets and smartphones.

Furthermore, most ARM based processors aren't just processors in name; they are also system-on-chips (SoC) with graphics processing capabilities built-in, such as Qualcomm's Adreno GPU. This design helps to save space and cut down on power consumption by consolidating its GPU with its processor. While the integrated GPU won't give you the graphics rendering power from discrete chips, it does have merits in handling resource-heavy games and providing a semblance of a decent gaming experience.

Companies such as Apple and Qualcomm take advantage of the ARM license to design their own processors to be deployed on a wide range of mobile devices.

Thanks to ARM's licensing system, hardware manufacturers have taken it upon themselves to design their own chips. To date, these are the more common ARM processor brands that have made it onto tablets: Apple, Qualcomm and NVIDIA.

In Apple's case, the advantage lies with the company being able to design and optimize their chips for their hardware and software. In particular, Apple has implemented its dual-core A5 chip on the iPad 2 in 2011, followed by an updated A5X dual-core processor with a quad-core GPU in the earlier part of 2012. Other companies, such as Samsung, Acer, Lenovo, Motorola and many more turn to NVIDIA's Tegra 2 dual-core processors, and in the months to come, the quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 processors to power their Android Honeycomb tablets in 2011.

Single or Multi Core?

By now, most tablets have already jumped onto the dual-core bandwagon, mostly with NVIDIA and its Tegra 2 architecture. The benefits of a multi-core processor allows multithreaded programs to make full use of the various cores, thus improving the overall performance.

However, apps are still the crucial bottleneck in this area. Though hardware manufacturers have been actively catching up with each other with faster and more powerful processors, the effort will be lost if apps aren't able to fully utilize the raw power of these multi-core processors.

Multi-core processors, such as NVIDIA's upcoming quad-core Tegra 3, are preferred for its better power efficiency due to its ARM architecture. (Source: NVIDIA)

Furthermore, when more cores are in use, the overall power consumption will become a point of contention. Herein lies the question - do you need to have a tablet that comes with much stronger processing power but at the expense of battery mileage?

Fortunately, companies such as NVIDIA have taken this into consideration. Its latest quad-core Tegra 3 processor includes a fifth CPU core called the Companion core. This fifth core executes low-powered tasks like being on active standby, as well as handling music or video playback. Should apps require more resources and processing power, the four identical ARM Cortex A9 CPUs are activated accordingly to raise the level of intensity needed for differing tasks.

Tip: Dual-core tablets are the current flavor, though power efficiency is still iffy. Expect a price drop in dual-core tablets when the first quad-core tablets powered by NVIDIA Tegra 3 hits the market.

The Need for Speed

Having multiple cores running concurrently is only just one aspect of the processor. Clock speeds also determine the processing power and overall smoothness of the tablet experience. To date, most tablets are running at clock speeds from 1GHz and above. In certain cases, manufacturers prefer to reduce the clock speed in lieu of reducing the load on the tablet's power consumption.

Does higher speed equate better performance? Yes and no. Though it does help in speeding up the user interface and overall loading times of your apps, this is still subjected to the optimization of the software. And that goes beyond the operating system, to the customized user interface and how apps call upon the processing power.

Speed isn't everything. An older processor can be overclocked to a higher speed, but it might not have the necessary power efficiency as a newer chips with a more manageable clock speed.

Tip: Do not be too concerned with processor clock speeds. Even a fast processor might not have a smooth user experience if the user interface isn't optimized.

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