Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Processors for Tablets

Processors for Tablets


NM process and how you can use this as one of your deciding factors with your tablet purchase decision. The NM process of the tablet is usually a good indicator as to the performance of your next device. As a definition, one nanometer is one-billionth of a meter and a meter is 39 inches in length. In terms of computer chip manufacturing, this is important because when transistors are smaller, more can be placed on a single chip, which leads to the creation of additional cores such as dual-core or even quad-core CPU's. I like to think of the cores as individual brains and the transistors as the individual parts that make up the brain. To give an example of the difference in processing power, the average size of a chip made in China is 50 NM while an Intel core i7 quad-core processor is 32 NM. While nanometer size is not the only factor that determines overall performance as we also have to take into account other variables like heat, power consumption and overall clock speed to name a few, but for the most part we can say that the fewer the NM's, the better the performance of the processor. With this said I am going to use this as my basis for determining the best China tablet computer.

ARM Processors

The majority of tablet use a processor architecture that was produced by ARM This company works differently than many others in that it designs the basic processor architecture and then licenses those designs out to other companies that can then produce them. As a result, you can get similar ARM based processors manufactured by a wide range of manufacturers. This can make it a bit more difficult to compared two tablets without having a bit of knowledge.
The most dominant of the ARM processor designs to be used within tablet PCs is based on the Cortex-A. This series is comprised of four different designs that vary in their performance and features. Below is a list of the four models and the features they have:
·      Cortex-A5 - Lowest power consumption, generally single core, frequencies between 300 and 800MHz
·      Cortex-A8 - Modest processor with better media performance than A5, generally single or dual core, frequencies between 600MHz and 1.5GHz.
·      Cortex-A9 - Most popular of the processors, typically dual core but available with up to four, frequencies between 600MHz and 1.2GHz.
·      Cortex-A15 - Newest processor design that is not very common yet, typically dual or quad core, frequencies between 1GHz and 1.5 GHz
As mentioned before, this is just the basis for the ARM based processors. Each manufacturer can make some small changes to the design but for the most part, performance will be very similar between products within the same base design. This means that Apple's A5 and NVIDIA's Tegra 2 which are both based on the Cortex-A9 with dual cores and 1GHz clock speeds will have very comparable base speed. The actual speeds can differ though because of the amount of memory, the operating system run on each platform and the other hardware such as the graphics processor. However, if one processor is based on the Cortex-A8 while another is the Cortex-A9, the higher model will typically offer better performance at similar speeds.

x86 Processors

The primary markets for x86 based processor are tablet PCs that run the Windows operating system. This is due to the fact that the existing versions of Windows are written for this type of architecture. Microsoft will be releasing a special version of Windows 8 called Windows 8 RT that will run on ARM processors but this does have have some big drawbacks that consumers should be aware of that make it different than a traditional Windows 8 tablet.
The two major suppliers of x86 processors are AMD and Intel. Intel is the most frequently used of the two thanks to their low power Atom processors. While they don't have the same levels of efficiencies as ARM based chips, they still provide sufficient performance for running Windows albeit below the level of traditional laptops. This means that they have more in common with netbooks in terms of their capabilities. Now, Intel offers a wide range of Atom processors but the most common series to be use for tablets is the Z series because of its lower power consumption and reduced heat generation. The downside to this is that these processor typically have lower clock speeds that traditional processors which limit their potential performance.
Serious business class tablet PCs are on the market that use the new energy efficient Core i series processors similar to what is used in the new class of ultrabooks which are also being designed now as hybrids of laptops and tablets with the Windows 8 software. This means that they offer a similar level of performance but generally are not as compact or have the same level of running times as the Atom based processors.
AMD also offers several processors that could be used in tablet PCs. These are based on AMD's new Fusion architecture that they like to call an APU or Accelerated Processing Units. At this time, there are just two series of Fusion processors on the market that could be used for a tablet, the C and E series. The C series equates more to the Intel Atom Z series of processors in terms of performance while the E series is closer to the lower end to the Intel Core i ULV processors. A new Z series processor should be hitting the market around the launch of Windows 8 that is more like the ARM processor levels but fully x86 compliant.
Here is a breakdown of the x86 processors in terms of performance from least to most powerful:
·      Intel Atom Z Series
·      AMD Fusion C Series
·      AMD Fusion Z Series
·      Intel Atom N Series
·      AMD Fusion E Series
·      Intel Core i3 ULV Series
·      Intel Core i5 ULV Series
Just remember that the faster the performance of the x86 processor, the more power it will typically consume and the larger the tablet will generally have to be in order to properly cool off the processor. Similarly, it will likely have a shorter battery life due to increased power consumption. Prices will also be more expensive the more powerful the processor is as well.

Why Number of Cores Matter

Most software now is written to take advantage of multiple processors cores. This is referred to as multi-threaded software. The operating systems and software can allocate tasks to be run in parallel between two different cores within a processor to help speed up the performance compared to running on a single core. As a result, a multiple core processor is generally advantageous to a single core processor.
In addition to having multiple cores help speed up a single task, it can make an even bigger difference when the tablet will be used to multitask. A good example of multitasking is using a tablet to listen to music while also surfing the web or reading an e-book. By having two processors over one, a tablet PC should be able to better handle the tasks by assigning each to an individual processor core rather than having to swap both processes between a single processor core.
In terms of numbers of cores, there are also issues. Having too many cores can also increase the size and power consumption of a tablet PC. While it is possible to have up to four cores, most tablet PCs software have a limited set of capabilities that will not really benefit from more than two cores. Four cores would certainly help with multitasking but it won't be as beneficial as most tasks that are run simultaneously are fairly modest in their power consumption where having additional cores is not a noticeable benefit. This may change in the future though as tablets become more widespread and what they are used for evolves.
Another feature that is being introduced into tablet processing is variable processing. This is essentially taking two different processor architecture designs into a single chip. The concept is that one lower power core can take over when the tablet doesn't need to do much work. This helps reduce the overall power consumption and presumably increase battery life. Don't worry, if you still need high performance, it will ramp up by using the larger processing cores as needed.

NVIDIA Tegra 2/Tegra 3:

At 40 NM the Tegra 2 and Tegra 3 chipsets are by far the best that the mobile market has to offer. Built off of the ARM Cortex A9 architecture, the Tegra® 2 is the first dual-core mobile processor the world has ever seen and the Tegra ® 3 the first quad-core mobile processor. The addition of cores and hardware acceleration helps with multi-tasking ability as well as better Flash enabled internet browsing and a more fluid multi-media experience. Putting those specifications aside, the feature that truly separates this chipset from all others is the NVIDIA GeForce® GPU with its ability to deliver game console quality 3D graphics acceleration and unbelievably crisp 1080P HD video. Power consumption is low making it ideal for hours of good use on a single battery charge. $329.00

You can view a full spec sheet, additional images or BUY NOW via Google Checkout by clicking the images in this lense.

Boxchip Allwinner A10:

At 45 NM this chip is based on the cortex A8 core. It is somewhat new to the China tablet market and makes bold claims, but is amongst the best nonetheless. The Boxchip's maximum frequency is 1.5GHZ but actually clocks at 1.1GHZ out of the box. Many advertisers are offering these tablets at the maximum frequency, but the actual end-user speed is lower without some over-clocking. Some of the other key features are Flash 10.x and the ability to upgrade to Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich". Another key feature is the onboard ARM Mali-400 GPU which greatly enhances 3D acceleration and video codec performance. Supporting DDR 3 RAM also gives it additional speed via higher memory performance. Tablets can be found in 7 inch at 800 x 400 resolutions and 10 inch at 1024 x 600 resolutions. An all around solid choice that's under $199.00

Samsung S5PV210/PV210

Samsung PV210: At 45 NM the PV210 is based on Cortex-A8 core and has an out the box clock speed of 1GHz. Tablets with this core generally run Android 2.2 or 2.3 with 512MB DDR 2 RAM and 4GB ROM standard. The chip provides fluid video playback and solid game play. One of the most popular tablets to include this chip is the Haipad, released by the well known appliance manufacturer The Haier Group. With Samsung being behind the Apple iPad chip, tablets running on this chip are a sure bet.
Also from Samsung is the S5PV210 chip which is just a step above the PV210 also built on the A8 architecture and running at 1.2GHz on 45 NM process with Android 2.3. Memory support is VIA DDR 2 and it also includes its own high speed 3D graphics accelerator via a POWERVR SGX 540 3D graphics coprocessor and supports 30 fps full HD video playback and recording. The onboard GPU also tackles 3D games with ease. $205.00

Amlogic AML8726-M:

Amlogic is a California based chip maker that is the source behind the 45 NM Amlogic-AML8726 which is built on the ARM Cortex-A9 core with a top-end clock speed of 800MHz. Despite its lower clock speed, it does have its own GPU via the ARM Mali-400 which produces smooth game play and fluid Full 1080P HD video playback. The Zenethink C71 is the most popular on the market today and has set the standard for tablets to come from Zenethink. Now on pace with the Android 4.0 "Ice cream Sandwich" C92 that comes with many new enhancements the C71 is tablet that can satisfy the mid-level tablet user. $145.00

Freescale iMX515:

th a 45 NM process the iMX515 is designed on the Cortex-A8 core and has a clock speed of 800MHz alongside DDR 2 SDRAM at 200MHz. It's has the ability to playback videos in 720p HD through its own video decoder and D1 video encoder via a NEON SIMD graphics accelerator. Analog HD 720p component TV output is where it lacks compared with some of the newer 1080P models, but is still a decent unit when you can combine a 10 inch capacitive touch screen, 1024 x 600 resolution and 3G on the go. $179.00

InfoTMIC IX210/ZT-180:

With a 45 NM process via an ARM 11 core these two processors are from Zenethink and can be found in some of the most popular 10 inch tablets available. The IX210 can be most commonly found in the Flytouch/Superpad tablets, which has captured a large global following. The ZT-180 chip can be found in many ePads carrying the same name and was originally dubbed the iPad clone. Both were designed to run 512M RAM via Android 2.2 and clock at 1 GHz, but are slightly slower than most A8 chips. They both support 1080P HD playback and have good online streaming capability and game play. The thing that I like about the two chips most is that there is a good internet community that offers a lot of general support as well as firmware updates. $158.00

Rockchip RK2818:

With a 65 NM process chip based on the ARM 9 core, its maximum frequency is 624MHz and supports Android 2.2 with DDR2 memory. Video playback is choppy given its low processing speed and lack of graphics core. It does however have decent 720P HD video playback from the HDD, but streaming online video is laborious for the processor without a GPU. $126.00

VIA MW8650:

At 65 NM this is one of the most popular and least expensive chips in the China tablet market today. It is based on the ARM 9 core with a maximum frequency of 600 MHz, supports Android 2.2 and DDR2 memory. It also does not have a separate GPU and is only good for basic task like surfing the internet, using Facebook, Twitter and other non-demanding applications. You can find the VIA 8650 in a wide range of tablets form 10 inch to 7 inch at prices under $100.00

Intel and AMD

While chip makers in the ARM camp are watching each other closely, the companies also have to contend with x86 processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, on which the Windows OS has grown up. Beta testers have played with Windows 8 on x86 tablets and PCs for months now, giving it a leg up over Windows RT, which has been shown as a product in development via a few tightly monitored tablet demonstrations at trade shows.
The first choice buyers will make is whether they want Windows 8 or Windows RT, after which they will decide on the device, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.
Both the operating systems have a similar touch user interface, but existing Windows applications will not work on Windows RT devices. Microsoft is trying to make RT attractive to new buyers by bundling desktop Office productivity applications.
As we look past the iPad, the tablet market is poised to become a significant market for chipmakers. And that’s an exciting opportunity for the likes of Nvidia and Qualcomm to seize this new ground from Intel.
ARM-based processors power most of the smartphones and tablets now in the market. And Apple’s A4 processor (an ARM-licensed design) has led the pack in tablets, given Apple’s commanding market lead with the iPad.
But Apple is the sole consumer of the proprietary A4, and with an explosion of tablets coming to market in the next 6 to 12 months, it’s unlikely that Apple and its A4 will continue its total domination.
Tablet device vendors will choose from an array of primarily ARM-based chip suppliers who could be rewarded handsomely if the market takes off as predicted (100 million-plus tablets in the next 1-2 years, 200 million-plus in 3-4 years), and Android-based systems eclipse iPads in sales volumes. (We expect non-Apple tablets to outsell iPads by a factor of three to four within 2-3 years). So the silicon land grab is on!
Nvidia with its ARM-based, dual-core Tegra chip is chalking up some wins for next-generation tablets, and even some high-end smartphones. (LG recently announced Tegra will power its soon-to-be-released tablet running a new version of Android.) Qualcomm, with its Snapdragon chips powering many leading-edge smartphone designs, will be a contender. Intel has set its sights on this market with its Atom chips. The chipmaking giant lacks a substantial vendor base for smartphones, but should never be counted out.
Nvidia, long known for its graphics processors, gambled on the emergence of new mobile devices requiring both processor and graphics capability. It licensed the ARM core and built a graphics engine into a chipset it promoted as being the most advanced low-power, graphics-enabled processor available.
However, its efforts for the past year have gone largely without major success in the smartphone arena. (It had something that momentarily looked like a win with Microsoft’s Kin smartphones, but the devices failed to sell and were pulled off the market within weeks of launch. Windows Phone 7 devices use Snapdragon.) But tablets have larger screens and are much more media-centric than phones, and Nvidia’s recent move to dual-core and its enhanced graphics capability means it is finding new respectability.
Its primary competitor, Qualcomm, has a long presence in the phone business and has been very successful with the Snapdragon in smartphones. But it has fallen behind Nvidia in graphics, relying on a licensed graphics core from Imagination Technologies, which licenses its graphics cores to most ARM producers, including Apple and Intel. That licensing deal means Qualcomm does not completely control its own destiny. Nonetheless, with a who’s who of smartphone vendors buying its chips, it has an advantage winning new business in tablets since all of the major smartphone vendors are expected to have tablet devices to market in the next 6-12 months.
The real turf battle in tablets is between ARM and Intel architectures. Intel’s Atom chips own the market for any Windows-based tablets, since Windows does not currently support anything but Intel. (Windows Phone 7, Microsoft’s rewritten mobile operating system, does run on ARM and could eventually make its way to tablets.) But other than Apple’s iPad, the vast majority of tablets will run Android on ARM-based chips. And graphics performance will increasingly become a product differentiator in tablets since media aptitude is such a compelling requirement.
Of course there is no shortage of contenders in the chip wars. Besides Nvidia and Qualcomm, Marvell has made some gains with its ARM-based processors, a business it bought from Intel several years ago, but so far has had less impact in the tablet market than in phones. Samsung’s own chips power its successful Android devices. TI, Freescale, and others have done well in phones but have minimal presence in tablets so far. However lower-end, lower-cost devices may give them an opportunity.
Completely absent so far is longtime Intel rival AMD, which does not have a competitive product for this class of device, and is unlikely to have one in the short term. When it does, it will likely be based on Intel’s architecture, like Intel’s own Atom — a nod to AMD’s long history of providing compatible alternatives to Intel’s designs. With AMD’s graphics prowess, it could potentially rival Intel’s Atom, although I’d expect AMD to have a hard time catching Atom in power-to-performance ratios at this point.
So, this will be a knock-down, drag-out fight. Nvidia needs to be successful in tablets, and 2011 may indeed be the long-promised, long-unrealized year of the Tegra if Nvidia can demonstrate performance and price advantage over Qualcomm’s Snapdragon. The market for standalone graphics chips is shrinking as an increasing share of PCs have central processing units with integrated graphics.
Nvidia needs to find a new high-volume, high-margin market. Tegra in mobile devices just may be the market that provides this opportunity. It will depend on how many chips it can sell and if it can keep margins high in an increasingly competitive tablet market. Nvidia stands to gain handsomely if it can stay ahead of Qualcomm (and Intel) in design wins.
But Tegra will have to work hard to displace Snapdragon as the king of smart devices, and Qualcomm is not standing still with its technology. And Intel has an all-out blitz going to capture market share with newer more competitive Atom designs. This battle is going to get graphic.

Intel next-generation Atom chip

Intel-based Windows 8 tablets, and share details about their next generation Atom processor, codenamed Clover Trail. The tablets will be built around a dual-core, 1.8GHz Atom Z2760 processor, a close cousin to the Medfield chip used in smart phones. The chip houses a SGX545 graphics core, 1MB of L2 cache, and depending on the configuration tablets with the Z2760 can include NFC and LTE capabilities.
They’ve also turned down power consumption significantly -- a major drawback with the previous Atom tablet chip, codenamed Oak Trail, which appeared in just a handful of Windows 7 tablets. According to Intel, Windows 8 tablets based on its Clover Trail chip should offer up to 10 hours of use and 30 days in standby.
Windows 8 tablets from Asus, Lenovo, Samsung and others based on the Atom Z2760 are expected to run $650 and up -- quite expensive for an Atom machine. More powerful variants (with shorter battery life) based on Ivy Bridge will be known as Windows 8 Pro tablets, and come complete with USB 3.0 and 1080p video playback, while Windows RT tablets are powered by ARM chips and won’t run traditional desktop software.
The whole mix is a bit confusing if you ask me. Unfortunately we won’t have a clearer picture of what price range each of these Windows 8 tablets will target until products start arriving next month.
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