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Qualcomm VP lambasts core count race, expects a flurry of Snapdragon 800 tablets

We asked Tim McDonough to tell us more about the Snapdragon 800, Qualcomm’s top-of-the-range system-on-chip that the company unveiled earlier the year and which will be remembered for sharing the stage at CES with the real-life, yellow-feathered Big Bird (opens in new tab). (Check out our brief encounter with a tablet that features the Snapdragon 800).

Tim started our conversation by stating that the company doesn’t believe in paper launches, a veiled allusion to a well-known competitor which unveiled a new chip last month and will ship that part next year.

Even then, the Snapdragon 800 won’t appear until the second half of 2013 with Tim saying that some partners are being very enthusiast about the chip. He declined to say whether we’d see devices based on the Snapdragon in the June-July timeframe but that, we've heard, is likely to happen.

Speaking of devices, McDonough said that the Snapdragon 800 would be used primarily in tablets rather than in smartphones. The Snapdragon 600, which was launched at the same time as the Snapdragon 800, rapidly made its way in top-of-the-range smartphones like the Asus Padfone Infinity (opens in new tab), the ZTE Grand Memo (opens in new tab), the HTC One (opens in new tab), the LG Optimus G Pro (opens in new tab) and the Samsung Galaxy S4 (opens in new tab).

The reason why the Snapdragon 800 will target tablets, McDonough quipped, is because it has more features than its little brother. From the ability to drive Ultra HD content on larger displays to a much higher performance (both GPU and CPU), the 800, is to quote Qualcomm’s man, “on another level”.

McDonough, who worked for more than a decade at Microsoft before joining Qualcomm, added that both the Snapdragon 600 and the Snapdragon 800 did a “great job at running high level operating systems” but declined to say whether he was referring to Windows RT, Microsoft’s promising but also misunderstood operating system. (Note that we got an unofficialconfirmation earlier this year at CES 2013 that the MDP tablet powered by the Snapdragon 800, was running Windows RT (opens in new tab)).

The platform, he said, is a “long-term investment with a long-term view”, from Microsoft, Qualcomm and other partners. He commented that the company was “proud of Windows RT and Snapdragon combination” with two tablets, the Samsung ATIV Tab (opens in new tab) and the Dell XPS 10 (opens in new tab), featuring the Snapdragon MSM8960 SoC. He also drew a parallel between the first days of smartphones and those of Windows RT.

McDonough then used the example of the Dell XPS10 to illustrate how Windows RT could be instrumental to the future of mobile computing outside smartphones. He uses that convertible on a day-to-day basis and he's adamant that the form factor has a lot of potential as it appears to be the missing link between a consumption tablet and what can be described as a “work tablet” with a removable keyboard docking station.

That work tablet, he suggested, might be something along the lines of the jaw-dropping Sony Xperia Z tablet (opens in new tab), a device that’s so thin that many thought, while holding it, that it was only dummy. At 6.9mm and weighing a mere 495g, it is by far the lightest and slimmest 10.1in tablet in the world. Could Sony therefore launch an Xperia Z tablet based on Windows RT?

According to Qualcomm’s VP Marketing, people want a tablet that has the feel of a traditional personal computer without having to have two devices. With Windows RT and Snapdragon, they can get both without any trade-off, he quipped.

Windows RT, McDonough continued, is a viable platform with consumers starting to adopt the platform. More people need to try it first to get an idea of how it works. But he thinks that the catalyst to Windows RT’s success will be seamless connectivity which he says would “bring thing to the next level”.

Perhaps more significantly, 4G LTE (which implies the Qualcomm 800 almost certainly and other SoC derivatives) will turn on a new retail channel for device manufacturers as mobile phone operators join the fray with their sophisticated approach, making of Windows RT and LTE a major revenue opportunity.

When we probed him further on whether Qualcomm would introduce more SoCs for Windows RT in a near future, perhaps to decrease the bill of material and to make devices running on that platform more affordable. McDonough replied that ARM manufacturers do not produce chips at the same price point as x86 (read Intel and AMD).

He pointed to Windows Phone 8 for some guidance before adding that “Windows RT is still a toddler in comparison”. First generation Windows Phone 7.5 devices all used single-core Snapdragon MSM processors (8260T, 8255, 7227A etc) while second generation use dual-core models (8227, 8230, 8260A and 8960). In comparison, there was only one SKU for Windows RT, the APQ8064. He reiterated the fact that OEMs have committed serious resources to Windows RT although he acknowledged that it “takes a long time to pay off” but that they are “serious about it”.

McDonough ended our conversation with a quick word about how the current market for SoC is literally turning into a core-fest that looks very similar to the one that took place on x86 a few years ago. He warned consumers not to believe the “more cores, the better” mantra. Likewise, more MHz, pixels or DPI is not necessarily a sign of better overall performance.

And McDonough to conclude that Qualcomm will do more to highlight experiences, focusing more on the tasks that can be achieved by a device (like taking HDR pictures in real time) rather than on the number of cores or the clock speed. This, it seems, may be what it takes to differentiate Qualcomm from the scores of other fabless ARM-based semiconductor companies that are currently vying for market share.

Désiré Athow

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.