Analysts ponder the power inside Apple's tablet

Analysts speculate about what will provide the processing power for the device--or devices, as the case may be.

Brooke Crothers
Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
3 min read

As speculation over an Apple tablet reaches a crescendo before the January 27 event, analysts offer their insights into what will power the device--or devices, as the case may be.

A larger iPod Touch?
A larger iPod Touch? Apple

Richard Doherty, director of technology consulting firm Envisioneering Group, believes that multiple tablets and/or a Macbook with touch-screen features will emerge. So, what's inside depends on the device. "Anything that's not a Mac touchscreen, will be an ARM processor," according to Doherty, who said he believes that Apple, sooner or later, will also bring out a MacBook that has tablet-like features, in addition to tablets.

U.K.-based ARM supplies a basic chip design to a number of chip suppliers including Samsung (which Apple currently uses), Qualcomm, Marvell, Texas Instruments, and Nvidia that then employ the design in their own system-on-a-chip (SOC).

Doherty says Apple is targeting a multi-core ARM processor for the tablet. To date, most ARM-based designs have used a single "application" processing core. The extra processing oomph from a multi-core chip could be used for handling video-related tasks while the user simultaneously works on another task, he said.

Though it's not clear to Doherty what Apple will use in the first version of a tablet, he says Apple is eventually going multi-core. "Before the year is out, Apple will have the most powerful, lowest-cost SOC in the industry. There's nothing that I can see from ARM licensees or Intel that could challenge the power-per-watt, the power-per-buck, the power-per-cubic-millimeter of size. Apple is going to have quite a performance, battery efficiency and cost advantage over the competition," he said, referring to Apple's own chip design based on technology that stems from its acquisition of PA Semi.

More than anything, multi-core balances processing power with power efficiency, Doherty said. Simply increasing the processor's speed--typically measured in gigahertz--can quickly drain the battery. Multi-core "is the best way to stretch battery life," he said.

Apple tablet silicon:

  • PA Semi application processor: ARM core but internal Apple design
  • Qualcomm: Wireless Wide Area Network (WWAN): device always on
  • Broadcom: Bluetooth/Wi-Fi
(Source: Ashok Kumar, Northeast Securities)

Doherty believes that there are four Apple products in the pipeline. A touch-screen Mac, an "iPod Touch on steroids" for gaming (with a 5-inch-class screen), and "two different versions of media pads in the 7- to 9-inch (screen size) area," he said.

And what about the near-term tablet expected on January 27? Ashok Kumar, an analyst at Northeast Securities, believes that initially the tablet will have a Samsung-made PA Semi ARM processor.

Kumar speculates that Apple would continue to use Samsung as the chip's manufacturer as it moves toward its own proprietary chip design. "The core development work will be done by PA Semi but the implementation will be done by Samsung in terms of fabbing (making) the product," he said.

"Apple will have two different (offerings). Taking a page out of the Google book, one will be subsidized through a (telecommunications) carrier and the other one will be direct through their stores," he said.

Hon Hai will do the final assembly of the tablet, according to Kumar.

Updated at 10:00 a.m. PST: adding information in Kumar discussion about PA Semi processor that is speculated to be in initial Apple tablet.