Intel to Power Android Tablets, But Chips Aren’t Honeycomb’s Issue

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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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