As the Apple iPad and its A4 chip get ready to ship on April 3, the competition is not standing still--and, by all appearances, there's plenty of it.
As reported back in January, the A4's central processing unit, or CPU, design, as it stands now, is thought to be based primarily on technology from U.K.-based ARM. Linley Gwennap, who is the president and principal analyst of The Linley Group, believes the A4 uses a fairly common ARM CPU designed by Intrinsity and manufactured by Samsung.
Where Apple, instead, may have chosen to enhance the A4's capabilities is outside the core CPU, modifying functions such as the 3D graphics engine. Along these lines, last year, Apple picked up former chief technology officer Bob Drebin of the Graphics Products Group at Advanced Micro Devices, who is now listed as a senior director at Apple.
"You pick and choose one or two places where you can invest and do something different from what other people are doing and then you just license the rest," Gwennap said. "In Apple's case, they've always differentiated based on the user experience, so it may be more valuable to them to control the graphics or the video or the audio or something like that rather than the CPU itself."
And what is the A4 up against? An overview of Apple's rivals and their competing technologies reveals a diverse ecosystem for smartphones and tablet/slate devices.
The competition for the Apple A4,
- Qualcomm Snapdragon:
Speed: 1GHz / Design: Qualcomm design using ARM instruction set / Products: Dell Mini 5 slate, Lenovo Skylight smartbook, Lenovo IdeaPad U1 laptop/tablet (see photo above), Google
- Texas Instruments OMAP3430: Speed: 550MHz / Design: ARM Cortex A8 / Products: Motorola Droid, Nokia N900, Palm Pre.
- Nvidia Tegra 2: Speed: 1GHz (max) / Design: Dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 / Products: Asus Eee Pad, Notion Ink, Viewsonic, T-Mobile UK. (Rumored: Microsoft Courier tablet, Motorola-Verizon device.)
- Marvell Armada 610: Speed: 1.2GHz (max) / Design: Marvell design using ARM instruction set / Products: Now sampling to customers.
- Intel Atom: Speed: 1.83GHz (max) / Design: Pine Trail, Moorestown / Products: Dell, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba Netbooks (Pine Trail). LG smartphone and other mobile Internet devices and tablets (Moorestown).