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BlackBerry PlayBook: What's under the hood?

Who supplies the silicon inside the just-announced BlackBerry PlayBook? So far Research In Motion isn't saying.

So, who makes the processor humming under the new BlackBerry PlayBook's hood? That important question was not answered yesterday when RIM announced the 7-inch tablet.

Yesterday, when Research In Motion co-CEO Michael Lazaridis unveiled the BlackBerry PlayBook during the opening keynote event at the DevCon developer conference, the dual-core processor was touted by Lazaridis as a marquee feature. But little else was revealed about what is probably the single most important piece of internal hardware.

Here's what we know about the tablet, due early next year in the U.S.: The PlayBook uses "1 gigahertz dual-core processors that take advantage of built-in symmetric multiprocessing," according to Lazaridis during the keynote speech. In symmetric multiprocessing (SMP), the operating system handles all allocation of threads, or tasks, to the processors. Most current high-level operating systems have built-in support for this mode of operation, according to a description of SMP on ARM's Web site.

BlackBerry PlayBook will be first of many tablets in 2011 sporting a dual-core processor.
The BlackBerry PlayBook will be the first of many tablets in 2011 sporting a dual-core processor. CNET
RIM CEO Michael Lazaridis showing off the PlayBook on Monday.
RIM co-CEO Michael Lazaridis shows off the PlayBook yesterday. CNET

That open-ended statement by Lazaridis presents a few possibilities that could fit the bill. Nvidia is shipping a dual-core Tegra processor and Texas Instruments has a dual-core OMAP processor due soon. Both chips--technically referred to as application processors--are based on the ARM Cortex A9 design and support symmetric multiprocessing. And Qualcomm will offer a chipset with a dual-core processor running at up to 1.5GHz next year.

Linely Gwennap, principal analyst, the Linley Group, said the only dual-core 1GHz ARM processor that is in production today is Nvidia's Tegra 2. He also cited TI's OMAP 4, which is due to enter production in Q4 this year as a candidate.

But RIM is a longtime user of application processors from Santa Clara, Calif.-based Marvell Semiconductor. The Canadian company uses Marvell in both its Bold and Torch smartphones, among other models. And a Marvell processor could also be a candidate for the PlayBook, according to Ashok Kumar, a managing director and analyst at Rodman & Renshaw.

Gwennap says a Cortex-A9 design from Marvell is problematic, however. "If it is a Cortex A9, it cannot be Marvell. Marvell has not licensed Cortex A9 and is instead using its Sheeva CPU. Also, Marvell's Armada 628, which they announced last week, is the company's first dual-core (actually tri-core) processor. It runs at 1.5GHz but will not be ready for shipping products until 2Q next year," said Gwenapp, who believes that TI's OMAP 4 is likely.

Marvell and RIM declined to comment.

The PlayBook's dual-core design--more processor cores translates to better performance--won't be unique in 2011 when a host of other dual-core tablets are expected to arrive. And a couple are already on the way. The just-revealed Dell Inspiron Duo tablet-Netbook hybrid packs a dual-core Atom chip and is slated to hit shelves by late this year. And The Toshiba Folio 100, due to ship in Europe in the fourth quarter, will use the dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor.

Key features supported by the silicon inside the 7-inch, 0.9-pound BlackBerry PlayBook:

  • 3-megapixel high-definition forward-facing camera
  • 5-megapixel high-definition rear-facing camera
  • 1080p HD video; H.264, MPEG4, WMV HDMI video output
  • Micro USB, Micro HDMI, and DNLA media streaming

Alas, we may not know for sure until teardowns reveal all after the release of the product in the first quarter.

Updated at 6:20 p.m. PDT: adding comments from Linely Gwennap, principal analyst, the Linley Group.