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Summary:

Hewlett-Packard’s introduction of new webOS handsets and tablets has gadget geeks’ hearts a-flutter, but the happiest folks may be those at Qualcomm: Their new Snapdragon chip is powering HP’s tablet, and they won the chip business away from TI for new webOS phones. Here’s why.

hp-touchpad

Hewlett-Packard’s introduction of new webOS handsets and tablets has gadget geeks’ hearts a-flutter, but the happiest folks may be those at Qualcomm. Thursday, the company shared details on the new Snapdragon chip that will power HP’s TouchPad tablet. Both new HP handsets — the Veer and Pre 3 — will also use Qualcomm chips instead of those from Texas Instruments, which were used in prior Palm Pre handsets. And the surprising announcement that HP will offer webOS desktops and laptops means that the mobile chip wars aren’t done yet.

Qualcomm’s new dual-core system-on-a-chip (SoC), the APQ 8060, was chosen as the brains behind the new HP tablet, and based on the video demonstrations, appears to have plenty of power for the webOS multitasking system. That’s a testament to the operating system as much as it is the hardware it runs on, but Engadget’s early look at the device shows near-instant interaction. The new Snapdragon provides two 1.2 GHz application processing cores and an integrated GPU that supports stereoscopic 3-D video playback and capture.

Indeed, from a feature perspective, Qualcomm’s APQ 8060 sounds similar to competing chips. Nvidia’s Tegra 2 brings dual core processing and 3-D video to T-Mobile’s G-Slate, which arrives in the next few months. Texas Instruments’ OMAP 4 chip line offers much the same performance and earlier this week, TI announced the OMAP 5 chip, a quad-core SOC arriving in the second half of this year which be built on the next-generation of ARM architecture, called Cortex A-15.

So if the new webOS devices won’t be arriving for several months, why then did HP swap out Texas Instruments silicon for Qualcomm’s? I suspect two reasons. First, Qualcomm had a stellar 2010 in mobiles, earning chip wins in numerous popular handsets. But Nvidia has fought back hard to get its Tegra 2 in products and most of the new devices shown at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show are using Nvidia’s chip. As a result, demand for Nvidia chips is high, and if companies like HP want more of them produced quickly, it’s going to cost more to boost the supply. That gives Qualcomm room to negotiate strongly to get chip wins.

The second reason is a matter of timing, because everyone who makes a mobile chip is touting a new dual-core version. Well, it’s one thing to have created that chip for sampling, but it’s another to have it ready for large-scale production. At last check, TI’s 1 GHz, dual-core OMAP 4430 was going into production this quarter, and the company has confirmed it will be used for Research In Motion’s Playbook tablet. And the OMAP 4440, which boosts the application cores to 1.5 GHz, is only just sampling now; TI expects the chip ready for production in the latter half of the year. At this point, Qualcomm appears to be moving faster in terms of getting chips sampled and then produced. To put the situation in perspective, TI began talking about the OMAP 4 line a year ago, or essentially, a full device cycle.

Of course, there’s an open question on which chip will power the HP webOS computers. HP hasn’t offered details on such devices, so they could run in a dual mode with both Microsoft Windows and webOS. But we’ve already seen a demo of Windows running on mobile chips, so instead of porting webOS the x86 chips commonly used in computers of today, it makes more sense for HP to stick with mobile chips. That means round two of the multi core chips begins in earnest in the second half of 2011. HP will be looking for peppy processors that are still energy-efficient, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other device makers follow their lead. We’re already seeing laptop-like devices that run on smartphone chips, or the smartphone itself, as evidenced by the Motorola Atrix 4G Laptop Dock I just unboxed on camera.

As appealing as a Texas Instruments quad core OMAP 5 chip sounds for a mobile computer, it likely isn’t in the cards for the first round of webOS computers. TI says OMAP 5 chips will sample before the end of this year and are expected to power products in the second half of 2012. Maybe TI’s OMAP 4440 will fit the bill in the meantime, but the company will have to convince HP not to use a solution from Qualcomm in order for that to happen

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  1. OT: Kevin, I thought you were leaving Gigaom for bigger better things, no?

    1. Not sure where you heard that, but I have no plans to go anywhere. Never have. :)

      1. Glad to hear it. You’re great!

  2. OMAP 5 doesn’t have a quad core CPU. I think Nvidia will leave pretty much every way behind. They should’ve done with with Tegra 2 as well, because Tegra 2 was actually on the market since September in that Toshiba smartbook, and then later in November or so in those noname tablets. They didn’t make a splash with it then because Android Honeycomb wasn’t ready in time. But just think about it – they had their dual core out since late Q3 2010, while Qualcomm, TI and Samsung are releasing theirs in Q2 2011.

    Once the quad core 1.5 Ghz Tegra 3 hits the market in Q4 this year, it will be obvious how far behind the others are, with chips only half as powerful (Qualcomm will release a dual core 1.5 ghz chip then, and so will TI). Also, OMAP 5 will be competing with Tegra 4, which will probably be a monster of a chip, too – my guess is a quad core Cortex A15 at 2 or 2.5 Ghz.

    Nvidia wants to be the new Intel of ARM chips, and I think they can do it. They have at least a 6 months lead, which means at least half a generation in front of the others, and I believe they will keep it.

    1. “OMAP 5 doesn’t have a quad core CPU.” I understand why you’re saying that, and I wasn’t trying to mislead, so here’s a bit of explanation: it’s not a four core application processor. Instead it’s Cortex A15 with two cores and Cortex M4 with two cores. Per TI: “The processor also includes two ARM Cortex-M4 processors for offloading real-time processing from the Cortex-A15 cores to improve low-level control and responsiveness of mobile devices.”

      Having said that, I’d agree with you that Nvidia seems well positioned in terms of timing.

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