Summary:

Nvidia is the first chip-maker to deliver a quad-core mobile chip, the Tegra 3, for use in Android devices. I’ve argued in the past that throwing hardware at Android tablets won’t sell more of them, but the timing of this new chip just might be right.

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Nvidia is the first chip-maker to deliver a quad-core mobile chip for use in Android devices, with the Tegra 3 officially introduced on Wednesday. The Asus Transformer Prime, due out before the end of 2011, will use Nvidia’s Tegra 3, offering a performance boost without hitting the battery life of mobile devices. That’s a welcome combination for sure, but will it help future Android tablets sell?

Clearly, the Tegra 3 is a solid advance when it comes to mobile processors. Instead of boosting the core speeds of two-core chips — something Samsung, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and others are now doing — Nvidia doubled the number of computing cores. At the same time, the Tegra 3 includes a full dozen graphics cores. Perhaps the most innovative step, however, is the addition of a fifth core to complement the primary four: Non-intensive tasks can be offloaded to the fifth core for processing without using too much power.

All of this means Tegra 3 devices should offer noticeable improvements for general tasks as well as superb graphics. Earlier this year, we shared a video of the detailed rendering and shadows Tegra 3 will bring. It looks incredible.

Along with this increased performance is better power management. Nvidia says Tegra 3 offers three times the graphical performance of today’s Tegra 2, but 61 percent less power consumption, allowing for up to 12 hours of high-definition video playback. That figure is likely for tablets, which have higher capacity batteries than smartphones do. But in my conversations with Nvidia, I was told that quad-core smartphones are on the way; I expect to see them in January at the Consumer Electronics Show.

For now, we’ll see Tegra 3 chips powering Google Android tablets, which when compared to Apple’s iPad, haven’t sold as well. The more powerful chip is sure to help, but it only solves part of the problem Android tablets face. The Android user experience hasn’t shown a compelling reason for many to choose an Android tablet over an iPad, and the ecosystem lags in some ways as well. Both issues could be short-lived, however. Google’s new Android 4.0, or Ice Cream Sandwich, shows a much-improved user interface, and that could compel more developers to focus effort on Google’s tablet platform.

Asus likely stands to gain much as the first hardware-maker to adopt Nvidia’s new chip. Why? The company’s Transformer tablet is a popular seller, partly due to its relatively lower cost ($399) and the fact that it attaches to an optional keyboard accessory making the tablet a mini-laptop. By taking an already popular product and boosting performance with the Tegra 3, Asus could lead the pack for Android tablet sales, at least in the short term. And by combining Nvidia’s Tegra 3 with Android 4.0, Google-powered tablets could see a nice sales boost over time.

Android tablets aren’t likely to dethrone the iPad any time soon, but more capable chips that are battery friendly are sure to help as Android itself matures into a more user-friendly platform.

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