At a pretty enthusiastically received nVidia press conference here at CES 2012, company CEO Jen-Hsun Huang talked about the ability of Google Android Ice Cream Sandwich - ably supported by nVidia's quad-core Tegra 3 platform, of course - to unite the various strains within the Android segment. And take on Apple (was the unspoken subtext).
Huang covered a lot of ground, so here's a quick list of what I'm going to write about in this article. Look out for the demo of the latest build of Windows 8 on a tablet at the end there.
- Uniting Android devices
- Taking on Apple
- Asus tablet announcements
- Tegra 3, and its fifth 'ninja' core
- Gaming on Android
- Splashtop: remote access
- Windows 8
Uniting Android devices
The big themes of the press conference were the two contrasting qualities of variety and unity. Huang argued that the variety within the Android community is a strength: he compared it to the way the car market has evolved. Not everyone has the most popular car, he pointed out. (A reference to the iPad's dominance being challenged?) People have different needs. And in the same way, some people want a mobile device that's good for work, others want a media device, or a product that's good for gaming, or a blend of various functions.
But then he talked about the importance of bringing those different strains together. Huang said that before Ice Cream Sandwich, the Android market had become fragmented: Gingerbread for smartphones and Honeycomb for media enjoyment-focused tablets. But that all changed with the launch of Ice Cream Sandwich, he said - this was the OS to unite the Android market.
He seemed to be walking a tightrope in avoiding having his (Ice Cream) cake and eating it, but it just about made sense: people want a variety of mobile devices, but it's easier for content developers if it's a unified software platform. A bit like the strength of iOS being the same across the iPod touch, the iPhone and the iPad.
Taking on Apple
Which brings us neatly to the unspoken undercurrent running throughout the press conference: how can we beat the iPad? Right up front Huang pointed out that in the first year of tablet sales, some 25 percent were non-iPad; this rose to 40 percent in the second year. Implying that this figure will continue to rise in the future.
One of the advantages Apple has always had over Android is standardisation: you just buy an iPad, you don't need to worry about your particular device or OS can handle a given app.
(Well obviously it's not quite that simple. But it's a lot simpler to keep track of what works with what than with Android.)
Huang had a partial solution to this: a curated zone on the Android market called the Tegra Zone - containing only games that have been vetted as suitable for the Tegra platform. But we will return to gaming in a moment.
Asus tablet announcements
The big announcements of the press conference, not unpredictably given nVidia's milieu, were non-nVidia products, but ones that contain nVidia-made components. Asus boss Jerry Shen was brought up on stage to field somewhat awkward stage banter as two of his firm's new tablets were shown off.
Later a Microsoft rep was brought out to discuss the launch of Windows 8 on tablets. The one big gap was a Google representative - Android ran through almost everything that was discussed.
The Tegra 3-based Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime - the world's first Ice Cream Sandwich tablet - was the centrepiece of the presentation, playing host to most of Huang's demos. But there was also talk of a tablet that offered quad-core processing for just $249 (the audience actually whooped when this figure was revealed).
Tegra 3, and its fifth 'ninja' core
Huang said Tegra is the world's first quad-core mobile processor, but added that it actually has five cores. He called this fifth core a 'ninja' core - one that's able to sneak around and apply its power where necessary (an analogy that struck us as rather apt, given the mystery that was left around the actual technical details, although this was perhaps simply the CEO's way of aiming at a consumer show audience).
Huang announced a 'new surprise feature' for Tegra 3, which is called Direct Touch. This enables more accurate and responsive touchscreen technology, by sampling more frequently - the CEO claimed it offered three times the sampling rate of existing technologies.
Tegra 3 seems to make tablets at least competitive in terms of processing power with desktop computers or dedicated gaming consoles, as we shall see in the next sections.
Gaming on Android
First up Huang tried out a PS3 game on the Eee Transformer Prime Android tablet: RipTide, a jetski game. It played perfectly (unlike the CEO).
But that was just the beginning. Next up was a first-person shooter, and multiplayer at that. Two people on stage - and an apparently famous pro gamer sitting in the audience - took each other on at Shadow Gun, again without any apparent problems. First-person shooters are the gaming genre most dependent on high-end processing power (the pro gamer mentioned in passing that he's building a system with triple SLI GPUs), so this was an impressive demonstration of the power of the Tegra 3 hardware.
Splashtop THD: remote access on Android
On to remote access. In another pop at Apple, Huang explained that Splashtop is a popular way of remotely accessing a PC on an iPad, but that it produces disappointing resolutions. Leading to the revelation of Splashtop THD, a remote access app for Android that seemingly replicates the screen resolution of the PC being accessed.
Aside from an initial problem getting iTunes to start up in Splashtop - which Huang blamed, rather shamefully, on the mouse not working - this too was impressive. Videos ran perfectly, music played, different programs could be opened without any delay.
The finale of this was Skyrim running through Splashtop THD, on the Transformer Prime. Skyrim on an Android tablet!
It seemed a little odd after talking about the importance of a single, unified platform, but Huang ended by bringing another OS into the mix: a Microsoft spokesperson appeared to show off Windows 8 on a tablet. Huang himself said this was "the best development platform on the planet".
Windows 8 will be discussed in greater depth elsewhere, but the thing that interested me most about this demo was the discussion of flexible business models, in what must be a shot at Apple. Microsoft's Aidan Marcuss insisted that app developers can come to the company with any business model they want to use, and that Microsoft won't insist on taking 30 percent. They can get 80 percent of revenue if they like, he said.