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This year, the tablet market will become saturated with a variety of CPUs designed specifically for tablets. Many major computer manufacturers unveiled all manner of touchscreen devices sporting such chips, with dramatic increases in performance and battery life.
Despite what you’ve been told, all these CPUs are good; offering varying degrees of battery efficiency, processing power, graphics and cost. This article covers the latest and best of these tablet chips scheduled for release in 2013. Before getting into what’s available, it’s important to explain some of the biggest differences between the main technologies out there: ARM and x86.
What’s the Difference Between ARM and x86?
Two instruction set architectures will compete for market share in 2013 and on – ARM and x86. Consumers need only know that ARM powers Android, iOS and Windows RT (not to be confused with actual Windows) operating systems; whereas x86 provides the tech behind Windows 8 and Android (Android is compatible with both x86 and ARM architectures). For most users, the operating system will determine whether or not they purchase the device, since many will already have made purchases in a particular app store.
- ARM: You may have heard of the acronym “ARM” before – it stands for Advanced RISC Machine, produced by ARM Holdings. The architecture powers the vast majority of handsets and tablets on today’s market, whereas x86 dominates the desktop and server markets. ARM chips generally provide extremely good low wattage efficiency, which makes them ideal for mobile devices.
- x86: x86 is synonymous with chipsets designed by Intel and AMD (and Via). Historically, x86 chipsets edge toward possessing power at the expense of wattage consumption, particularly at lower frequencies.
What To Expect From Manufacturers In 2013?
“Temash” and “Kabini” by AMD
AMD’s newest lines of tablet chipsets integrate the graphics processor within the CPU, resulting in what AMD refers to as an “Accelerated Processing Unit” or APU, which Matt explained here. After initial teething troubles, the technology quickly developed into the backbone of next generation console gaming, powering both the upcoming Xbox One and Playstation 4. The APU provides a relatively decent processor with very good gaming graphics at low wattage. There are two new lines of APU, codenamed “Temash” and “Kabini” being released in 2013, dedicated for mobile devices:
Temash: Also known as “Elite Mobility”, the Temash x86 line will focus on tablet, notebook and hybrid tablet/notebook designs. Out of the two new lines, Temash will features lower heat production and power consumption at the expense of processing power, relative to Kabini. While Temash features relatively weak CPUs, their strong graphics capabilities more than make up for its processing shortcomings.
Temash will be used in Quanta, a reference design in the video below. The early interviews indicate a $300/€300 price point. From the video below, you can see that Temash’s APU runs Windows 8 very quickly.
Kabini: Kabini takes aim at the higher-powered portion of the mobile market, primarily dealing with notebooks. While some convertible tablets might include Kabini processors, this particular line will not show up on tablets because of its relatively high wattage consumption.
In a nutshell: For inexpensive tablets, the chipset to look out for is Temash (also known as Elite Mobility). AMD’s upcoming tablet line will likely have excellent graphics for mobile gaming on the Windows 8 and Android platforms. On the downside, their wattage consumption will exceed that of ARM-based systems by a sizable margin, resulting in overall poorer battery life.
Tegra 4 by NVIDIA
NVIDIA’s breakthrough platform, the Tegra 3, received a major update in Tegra 4. Tegra 4 features a powerful graphics processor alongside a quad-core ARM processor. The Tegra line has excellent battery endurance, as well, using a design similar to ARM’s big.LITTLE concept, which pairs an efficient and a powerful processor together. In line with this paradigm, Tegra uses a specialized second high efficiency processor for handling idle-state background operations. Consequently, Tegra-based tablets tend to drain very little when not actively being used.
Below is a video clip of Tegra 4 in action. The graphical performance appears similar to modern consoles, except in a tablet form factor.
The Nvidia Shield is a portable hand-held gaming console is powered by Tegra 4 and costs $299 (which we will be reviewing).
In a nutshell: Tegra 4 is a great ARM-based CPU with excellent graphics capabilities and good battery endurance. It’s also included in devices priced at less than $300, making it relatively affordable.
Snapdragons 600 and 800 by Qualcomm
Qualcomm’s latest ARM-based designs fit in both smartphones and tablets. The latest benchmarks show it to have both excellent performance and battery endurance.
Snapdragon 800: The Snapdragon 800 performed very well in early benchmarks, showing extremely good performance per watt. Although it loses to Tegra 4 in benchmarks, it’s still quite fast and its battery endurance will likely be superior to Tegra 4.
Snapdragon 600: The Snapdragon 600 powers the HTC One. For the most part, it represents an improvement over the previous Qualcomm S4 Pro. Currently, the Snapdragon 600 is rumored to power the next generation of Nexus 7 tablets, which will release sometime later this year.
In a nutshell: The Snapdragon series of CPUs is going to do some real damage as it is low cost, high performance and very power efficient. If you’re buying an Android or Windows RT system, try to find one powered by Snapdragon 800.
“Haswell”, “Clover Trail+” and “Bay Trail” by Intel
Intel’s first low wattage CPU, the Atom, entered the mobile game late with its “Medfield” system-on-a-chip, which focused on low wattage. Unfortunately, its performance was not particularly stellar. Since then, Intel released incremental refinements of its Atom architecture, resulting in its codenamed “Bay Trail” series. Additionally, Intel has added a number of graphical and efficiency improvements to its main series of CPU, codenamed “Haswell”, making it an ideal fit for the tablet market.
Haswell: Haswell is Intel’s latest revision of its Intel Core CPU line, emphasizing power efficiency and graphical capabilities. The first line of Haswell powered tablets, unfortunately, will use fans to cool the CPU, thus impairing battery longevity. The first fanless Haswell powered tablet will go on sale toward the end of 2013, manufactured by HP. On the downside, the overall price of Haswell equipped computers will exceed $500. This unfortunately prices Haswell well away from the ARM-based market. Upcoming Haswell tablets:
- HP: HP plans a passively cooled Haswell tablet for release in late 2013. Passively cooled designs (no fans) have substantially better battery endurance than devices that use fans.
- ASUS: ASUS put together some interesting tablet designs, incorporating Haswell. In particular, their Android-Windows 8 hybrid.
- Toshiba: Toshiba has several upcoming Haswell-equipped tablets.
Clover Trail+: Clover Trail+ was released in mid 2013 and while its CPU surpassed many of its ARM based competitors at the time of its release, its graphics capabilities and overall performance wasn’t particularly jaw-breaking. Additionally, hardware powered by Clover Trail+ tended to be overpriced.
Bay Trail: Bay Trail uses Intel’s 3D transistor technology, which improves power efficiency. It’s also the first time an x86 quad core CPU has been specifically designed for tablets. The new CPU will likely feature hyperthreading, meaning it will run eight simultaneous threads. Additionally, Bay Trail will start at around $200. Some early benchmarks show it to outperform Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800.
In a nutshell: Given the extremely good performance of Haswell and the likely low cost and good battery endurance of Bay Trail, Intel is going to be hard to beat in the 3rd quarter of 2013. If you intend on buying a Windows 8, or Android, tablet, look for Haswell for performance and Bay Trail for battery endurance and price.
Exynos Octa by Samsung
Samsung has built up a track record of excellence regarding its Samsung Galaxy Tab series. Its latest, cutting edge CPU is a shocking eight cores, on two separate CPUs.
Exynos Octa: Samsung’s latest eight core CPU, designed for both tablets and smartphones, uses the big.LITTLE design concept, which pairs a four core processor with another four core, high efficiency processor. On tablets, it only has one rumored application:
- Nexus 11: The Octa chip is rumored to be included on the upcoming Nexus 11.
In a nutshell: Samsung’s Octa core CPU is a strong contender, comparing well to the latest Snapdragon chips. Unfortunately, at this point we only know that it’s being used in the Galaxy S4 as Samsung hasn’t yet announced it yet for any tablets. In current benchmarks, it’s roughly comparable to the Snapdragon 600.
For the vast majority of users, the operating system will determine which CPU you choose. For ARM, the early reviews show Tegra 4 possessing an edge over all other similar processors. On the other hand, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 processor will likely provide better wattage consumption than the Tegra 4.
For x86, many of the early Haswell-powered tablets and convertible devices show strong performance and good battery consumption – at a high cost. Virtually all of the early Haswell products show a price range well above $500. On the other hand, many of Bay Trail estimates show a price range starting at around $200. In comparison, AMD competes in terms of price and graphics, in which case it handily beats Bay Trail and potentially Haswell.
For those of you obsessed with measuring GPU and CPU powers, check out Matt’s awesome review of GPU Boss. The site does a great deal of match-up analysis between upcoming GPUs.
Image credits: Woman using digital tablet PC in the park via Shutterstock; CPU images from their respective manufacturers’ websites.