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Summary:

Intel plans to power Google Android tablets in the future, which might be the chip-maker’s last, best shot at the fast-growing mobile market. But this isn’t the safest bet in town. For the moment, hardware has outpaced the capabilities of Google’s Honeycomb operating system.

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 Intel confirmed it will create chips to power Google Android Honeycomb tablets as the company continues attempts to enter the mobile device space. Currently, most smartphones and tablets run on ARM-based processors, which generally use less battery power, even as they have improved upon computing performance. If they perform well, future tablets using Intel chips could boost device sales and finally allow the company to break into the growing mobile market, but chips aren’t the biggest issue facing Google tablets.

At the moment, a larger challenge looms for Honeycomb, and it isn’t hardware related at all. Instead, it appears to me — along with a general consensus on the web — that hardware has outpaced the Honeycomb software. Why do I say that? Based on the many tablet reviews, along with my own hands-on impressions, Android 3.0 is far from optimized for performance.

Apple’s iPad 2 provides a more fluid experience than Honeycomb tablets, as does my Galaxy Tab, which doesn’t even have a dual-core processor. Even the BlackBerry PlayBook review unit that I’m now looking at seems to run faster and is far more stable. On the Motorola Xoom and T-Mobile G-Slate (see my review here), for example, I’ve seen application crashes, experienced touchscreen lags, and witnessed more sluggishness. Since there’s a mix of operating systems and hardware in my argument, let me recast it another way.

Both of the Android Honeycomb tablets I’ve used run on the same Nvidia Tegra 2 chipset. Yet, we’re now starting to see Android smartphones such as the Motorola Atrix  and LG Optimus G2x using the Tegra 2, and they’re high-performance machines that run with nary a hiccup. One could argue the tablets are driving larger, higher resolution screens, and therefore, the hardware has to work harder. That’s fair, but I’d say it’s also not very relevant. I’ve seen Tegra 2 smartphones output 1080p video to high-definition television sets without breaking a sweat. At the risk of oversimplifying, the chips are up to the task, so it must be the software that’s lacking.

This isn’t the first time I suspected Honeycomb was still a work in progress. When the Xoom arrived, it felt rushed and incomplete, partially due to some hardware gaps, such as the 4G upgrade and its inability to recognize microSD memory cards. But more importantly, the experience fell short of expectations based on highly capable hardware components and software miscues. The Android Market only runs in landscape mode, for example, which provides a jolting experience if you’re using a tablet in portrait mode.

I expect Honeycomb to mature and improve over time, just as Android for smartphones has since its 2008 debut. But until it does, Apple’s iPad will continue to dominate tablet sales. ABI Research today said that Apple accounted for 85 percent of the tablet market last year. That number will decrease as more Android tablets arrive in 2011, but until Google improves Honeycomb, Apple has essentially cornered this market, which brings me back to Intel.

The more iPads sold, the less relevance Intel will have in the mobile space, a market where it essentially has none to begin with. Apple designs its own chips based on a licensing agreement with ARM Holdings, so Intel has little to no chance of ever powering an Apple tablet. The chipmaker had (and lost) a friend in Nokia with the MeeGo operating system, and still might find a hardware partner to make a MeeGo tablet, but that’s another long shot now that Nokia has embraced Windows Phone 7 . Tablets from Research In Motion and Hewlett-Packard use ARM chips, too, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

So when the music stops playing, Google Android is the only seat left for Intel to make its mark in mobiles. Given my perception of what’s left to do with the Honeycomb software, perhaps Intel would be better off devoting less time to MeeGo and more effort helping Google improve its tablet operating system. Or maybe Intel is hoping Microsoft is just joking when it demonstrates the next version of Windows running on ARM processors.

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  1. The fact that the Honeycomb code hasn’t been release yet also supports the notion that it isn’t sufficiently optimized just yet.

  2. If the only problem is the software I doubt it’s an issue. Much the same as Windows on ARM. I used FX!32 on Alpha, wasn’t that good. After a few runs it would perform at a reasonable enough speed, but it wasn’t running as fast as x86, let alone at what would be expected of an Alpha chip running OSF/1 (or Tru64 as it would become.) Beyond the geek factor, like porting Linux to a new platform, I don’t see how Windows on ARM is a big deal. If everyone is moving to the tablet, why buy Windows?

    This to me feels like the advent of the PC, or perhaps even the new wave of home computers, prior to the PC. I don’t doubt as Gruber said that Apple own the top end. The question is how many people will be willing to pay up for an expensive toy going forward, especially in this economy. At $100-150 I might play, not at the prices Apple are charging. Even if they do produce the world best designed and desirable hardware.

    Horses for course I reckon, Still early days, and with Intel doing well as of yesterday and PC sales OK, I think it’s all smoke and mirrors. The real issue is Apple vs Samsung IMO, and not just the court case.

  3. HC has a far more fancy UI than 2.x or iOS, it also has a more robust multitasking mechanism consuming resources in the background.

    it’s easy too be silky smooth when you only have a grid of icons & choked multi-tasking, lets not forget all the things those types of limitations don’t allow you too do.

  4. Intel is only helping themselves by porting Android on to their chip-set. I was wondering did Intel claim any improved performance with their hardware?

    One aspect is that across ARM and Intel there are way too many variable like JVM, Linkers, Compilers, libraries and run time execution behavior

  5. Intel is only helping themselves by porting Android on to their chip-set. I was wondering did Intel claim any improved performance with their hardware?

    One aspect is that across ARM and Intel there are way too many variable which includes JVM, Linkers, Compilers, libraries, drivers and differing run time execution behavior. The final performance may be different, may be for the better or worse, i think it is tough to argue Intel may not add any value to Android until we have clarity on the exact root cause behind the Honeycomb instabilities.

  6. I am not clear why MS won’t have intel power the Nokia tables with Windows and intel again. MS keeps making noises from time to time about it’s OS running on other chips, but that usually not to any major effect. In the current mobile landscape, MS is desperate, Intel is desperate and so is Nokia. These “desperate” triamvate are bound to gang up.

  7. Shakir Razak Friday, April 22, 2011

    Hi,

    Intel has relied on a duopoly for the past two decades plus.

    Just as Android proponents boast of killing iOS by a 1000 cuts, that analogy works far more effectively with ARM who have so many hardware companies refining and adding value to it’s technology, unlike what the lumbering single source intel can manage.

    This is like the 80’s desktop Market, and like so many industries, while Intel thinks it still has it good, when those sub-$200 tablets arrive with av connections and broader office apps, Intel could find it’s core business falls of a cliff, then you have Oracle, nvidia etc. attacking the server Market.

    Kind regards,

    Shakir Razak

  8. Think about this, when honeycomb matures imagine where iOS will be. Do you Jobs and co. is just sitting on there billions doing nothing? Honeycomb will play catch up for a very long time at the very least. A web os tablet IMO is more appealing especially with hp marketing behind it, when it happens.

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