Hands-on with Qualcomm's Snappy Snapdragon S4 Pro tablet

We go beyond benchmarks to see just how Qualcomm's highly anticipated quad-core chip may change your tablet experience.

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So what did I see during my time using the tablet?

The S4 Pro MDP/T may have the potential to be superfast at Web browsing, but my ability to gauge this consistently was constrained by the hotel conference area's Wi-Fi connection. It seemed to load pages quickly, but the experience was mixed (and other tablets struggled at the same time, too).

On Basemark Taiji Free, character movement was smoother on the S4 Pro MDP/T than on the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity, which stuttered its way through the Taiji exercise.

The game Dead Trigger--which is optimized for Nvidia's Tegra 3--had smoother panning movements through the opening map on the Tegra 3-based Asus Transformer Pad Infinity than on the S4 Pro MDP/T. I also saw fewer antialiasing effects around the lines of the bridge, and more detail in the waves than on the S4 Pro tablet.

Another Tegra 3-optimized game, Riptide GP, lacked the screen splashes and some of the effects found when playing the game on Tegra 3 tablets; but I couldn't detect any significant speed differences in how the game performed between the S4 Pro and the Infinity.

My standard go-to test for any tablet is to load folders of high-resolution images to the tablet and see how the Google Gallery handles the images. Turns out the S4 Pro is a pro here: On the MDP/T, I slammed through some 100 images in an album, and watched the thumbnails redraw more quickly than on the Asus Infinity. I also found that there was no redraw lag as I zoomed in and out of images and panned around them. This kind of performance could be a huge boon for photographers and photo enthusiasts.

Another point that impressed: the camera's performance. I'm not talking about megapixels and image output, but rather the performance for image capture. When I fired up the camera, I immediately noticed that Qualcomm's talk about improving the camera on the S4 Pro wasn't just talk: The camera was more responsive than typical Android tablets at focusing, capturing the image once you press the capture button on-screen, and recycling to let you capture another image in quick succession. Often, the lag on that process can be interminable on Android tablets and renders those cameras frustrating to use.

A Qualcomm software engineer revealed to me in detail that the processing of the frames coming through the camera sensor goes through Qualcomm's video processing in its hardware pipeline, where those frames get hardware acceleration on the S4 Pro processor before getting rendered through the Android framework. Qualcomm says it is using Video for Linux 2 as the interface between the camera application and their engine and camera processing. The focusing algorithms are done by Qualcomm, too.

What Lies Ahead

No question that the Qualcomm S4 Pro APQ8064 system-on-chip is poised to turn heads when tablets (and phones) using the platform surface later this year. Qualcomm says to expect the platform to appear for Android first, though clearly it was designed with Windows 8 in mind as well. The reference design itself supports Windows-friendly 1366-by-768-pixel resolution, and even has a USB 3.0 connector and PCI-to-USB 3.0 bridge on board, and it can support a full-size SD card slot or USB port in addition to those for microSD and microUSB already found on the MDP/T.

The bigger question in my mind is how will this "pure" experience translate into the products we see at market, with whatever software enhancements, component choices, or tweaks that individual manufacturers choose to use. As journalists, we rarely get a chance to get this kind of hands-on experience with a reference design, so I have no comparison directly from other chip makers. But I do know that the raw design is one thing, and a mass-market, manufactured consumer product are two totally different things.

The upshot is that Qualcomm is jumping into the tablet space in a big way with the S4 Pro, and is providing a challenge to Nvidia's current domination of the Android tablet space. The upcoming months should prove pretty interesting, with both Qualcomm and, eventually, Intel getting into an increasingly competitive tablet market.

This story, "Hands-on with Qualcomm's Snappy Snapdragon S4 Pro tablet" was originally published by PCWorld.

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