Monday, October 18, 2010

The Chipmaking Future for Tablet PCs

Everywhere I turn lately, there are analysts forecasting an explosion in the sales of tablet PCs. For sure, most of that growth is based off the surge in popularity of the iPad. Much like the iPhone and iPod before it, the iPad represents the first mainstream product in a growing market and it’s not surprising that consumers like it – tablet PCs are great products and soon enough they’ll find out how great as true iPad competitors emerge.

What interests me most in this surge is not the potential for sales in the future. It will be interesting to see if some forecasts, such as a recent Gartner report stating that tablet sales will reach more than 200 million by 2015 while Forrester’s more conservative reports still peg the growing market at roughly 20 million tablets by the same year, will come to fruition.

But, I’m interested in the surge of news coming from chip manufacturers as they shift focus to the mobile trend in tablet computing.

Right now, many devices on the market are running on the A8 Cortex platform. This includes the iPad, which runs the A4 processor, and the Samsung Galaxy Tablet which is running the ARM A8 Cortex. The same chip base is also used in the Nokia 770.

But, despite how versatile the A8 has been in the last two years, manufacturers are aware of the need for faster, more power-efficient chips. It’s why MSI decided to delay its Windpad 100.Instead of rushing a tablet to market with aging technology (in their case an Intel Atom Z530), MSI is waiting for something more efficient and powerful.

The New Chips on the Horizon

While MSI will release at least one version of their Windpad before 2011 with the newer Cortex A9 from Texas Instruments, there are a lot more options in development as well. To start with, Texas Instruments has already licensed a new architecture from ARM – likely to go into new devices in about a year.

Intel is also upping their investment in mobile processing. They have already started appearing in some new devices like the Asus EP121, the Cisco Cius and possibly the HP Slate 500 (still rumors right now).But, we all know that Intel is pushing for more releases in the next two years to ramp up battery life without sacrificing power.

Then there’s AMD – a company that does not yet have a tablet chip on the market. Already, Dirk Meyer has been quoted as saying they won’t invest specifically in tablet computing until “the market’s big enough to justify the investment”. Of course, that doesn’t mean AMD isn’t in the tablet game at all. Their newest Ontario chipset is a combined processor/graphics chip that supposedly draws less power and that they see as being viable in tablets.

AMD is already a little behind in the netbook and mobile field, so this isn’t exactly surprising, but they can’t get away with not discussing it. Investors and analysts alike are tracking tablets because this is a massive growth market.

I still don’t know that numbers like Gartner’s are feasible – 200 million tablets is a lot of devices for a 5 year period. But, I also think we’re looking at the beginning of a massive surge in an industry that’s been on the cusp for 10 years. Chipmakers are going to start shifting resources to where the money is. No, desktop and laptop PCs aren’t going anywhere ( more than 250 million sales a year won’t just disappear), but if we see even a fraction of that in Tablets, the computing industry is going to change a lot in the next 5 years. 

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