December 13, 2010, 12:30 PM — The emergence of tablets as an alternative to PCs has caught the attention of chip makers, which are preparing next-generation processors to boost application and graphics performance on the devices.
Following the launch of the iPad in April, Apple sold close to 7 million tablets by the end of September, with consumers using them to view video, read e-books, surf the Web and play games. The appetite for tablets has pushed chip companies like Arm and Intel to develop next-generation processors designed to make tablets faster and more power-efficient.
Prominent consumer electronics companies like Samsung, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Research in Motion are joining Apple in a race to gain tablet market share. These tablets run Google's Android, Microsoft's Windows, or internally developed operating systems.
Not everyone is convinced there really is a tablet market beyond the iPad. "All these new Android and Windows tablets have yet to prove there's really a market beyond Apple," said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates.
Apple may simply be benefitting from pent-up demand for its products at lower price points. "Essentially, people are able to get an Apple for half of what it used to cost," Kay said.
Research firm Gartner, however, has pegged tablet shipments to reach 54.8 million in 2011, so there could very well be room for multiple players. Gartner in November said that tablets could displace around 10 percent of PC units by 2014.
The tablet market is in its early stages, poised to grow, and the competition will only intensify with the release of next-generation chips, said Michael Palma, senior research analyst at IDC.
Arm, Intel and MIPS are designing low-power chips with video and communication capabilities to fit the tablet profile. Arm has announced the Cortex-A15, a faster and more power-efficient processor than its predecessor, the Cortex-A9, which is used in tablets such as Toshiba's Folio 100.
Intel has already announced the Moorestown chip, which will go into tablets next year, and is developing the Oak Trail chip for tablets. The Oak Trail chips are faster and more power-efficient than Intel's current Atom chips, which are mainly used in netbooks.
On its part, MIPS Technologies has said it wants to push its architecture into tablets, with products perhaps appearing next year.
The current tablets are shipping mostly with chips designed for smartphones, and there is room for improvement, Palma said.
"[Tablets] have special requirements, the processor needs to be small and focused on power conservation while still providing video processing capabilities," Palma said.