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Apple to face fast Android tablets

Apple will likely face a few high-profile, high-performance Android tablets this year packing Nvidia's quad-core processor.

Apple's iPad will likely have to contend this year with new Android tablets sporting the latest high-speed silicon coming off production lines in Asia.

Nvidia is on the record saying that tablets powered by its quad-core Kal-El chip are arriving this year. "Kal-El-powered tablets are coming this fall, and phones around the CES 2012 timeframe," Nvidia said in a statement to CNET on Friday.

It's safe to presume that Nvidia isn't just blowing smoke. Its processors today power all of the most popular Android Honeycomb tablets, including the Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, Toshiba Thrive, and Acer Iconia Tab A500. Future Sony tablets will use Tegra too.

Nvidia claims its upcoming quad-core processor will offer higher performance while being more power efficient
Nvidia claims its upcoming quad-core processor will offer higher performance while being more power efficient. Nvidia

And listening to Nvidia's earnings conference call on Thursday provided some more food for thought. "Our next-generation Kal-El processor had a very strong quarter of design wins," CEO Jen-Hsun Huang said. "And we have a great working relationship with [Google]. And so as soon as our next generation processor Kal-El is ready for production, we can run like the wind."

One of the more intriguing points Huang made was about Kal-El's power consumption. The seemingly logical assumption is that a quad-core processor will be more power hungry. Not necessarily, said Huang. "Kal-El is so much better performance than Tegra 2. And so much lower power. Very few people have internalized that Kal-El is lower power in every use case compared to Tegra 2," he said.

So, now that we know that high-performance Android tablets are coming, we're left to speculate on brands. Motorola is one of those most likely candidates. The company will come out with "much more aggressive form factors" for tablets later this year, CEO Sanjay Jha said when speaking at a tech conference this week. Asus is another prospect.

Texas Instruments--likely a leading chip provider for upcoming Android Ice Cream Sandwich tablets and smartphones--and Qualcomm also have plans for quad-core chips but, those aren't due until 2012 sometime.

How will Apple respond? Well, theories abound. One being that Apple will offer a premium iPad for professionals, sporting a higher resolution screen, among other tweaks. Then, of course, there are plenty of rumors about an iPad 3. But when that will land in Apple stores is a crapshoot. Apple may wait until next year when it can pack in plenty of new goodies like a quad-core A6 processor, better graphics, and a revamped design.

Ironically, despite different production schedules, Apple and Nvidia may get their silicon from the same source. Nvidia historically sources its chips from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company or TSMC, one of the largest chip manufacturers in the world. Many industry experts believe that Apple will also consign production to TSMC of either a future version of the A5 processor or the next generation A6.

Linley Gwennap, who heads The Linley Group, a chip consulting firm, thinks Apple may turn to TSMC. "Nvidia [will go] quad-core late this year, Apple A6 early next year. So Nvidia could be out a little sooner than Apple, but not by much," said Gwennap.

As long as Apple gets the iPad 3 out reasonably soon after quad-core Android tablets begin to proliferate, most consumers probably won't care. That said, all bets are off with Windows 8 running on ARM processors like Nvidia's Kal-El.

Updated at 6:35 p.m. PDT: adding comments from Linley Gwennap of The Linley Group.