Tablets: Do Specs Really Matter?

Apple’s 3rd generation iPad announcement created quite a stir, but at the same time, I’ve been seeing a lot of hand wringing over hardware specs. Tegra 3 fans are disappointed by the lack of a quad core CPU, while Apple is keen to point out the A5x’s graphical superiority. Over the last few days we’ve seen a lot of debate over whether the A5x or the Tegra 3 is the better processor. Apple’s GPU performance graph was shown without much of the needed background information to know how such numbers were achieved.

Anand’s article analyzing the hardware of the new iPad is a fantastic read and explains how Apple might have gotten these numbers. For all intents and purposes, Apple does have a more superior chip in graphics performance, while the Tegra 3 has the superior chip for CPU and multitasking performance. However, it doesn’t really matter. Both Nvidia’s Tegra and Apple’s A(x) platform are upgraded for the sole purpose of moving forward Android and iOS. What these chips are not doing, is competing with each other.

It’s Not a ‘Puter

Tablets are a lot like game consoles. While game consoles are getting quite powerful lately, the CPU, Graphics power and especially the amount of RAM is incredibly low compared to most desktop and even laptop computers. A gaming laptop will easily have 10x the power of an Xbox 360. The reason for this is optimization. If game designers only have to build their game with one set of hardware in mind, they can push the system to it’s limit and know that every Xbox gamer will have the same experience as the programmers and play testers.

A game designed for a Windows computer, however, has to take in account thousands of possible hardware configurations. There is a little optimization they can do for popular hardware configurations (thus why AMD sponsored games run better on AMD graphics, while nVidia sponsored games run better on nVidia graphics), but generally they have to cater to the lowest common denominator. This is why many game companies will build first on the Xbox 360 (most popular gaming platform), then port to the PS3 and PC. It’s simply easier to optimize for one platform and then tweak the graphics settings and options on the wild cards.

Programmers Hate Hardware Options

Tablets are the same way. iOS programmers know that there are only 3 iPad configurations, 3 relevant iPhone configurations (but 3 more that may still have a small user base), and only a couple relevant iPod configurations. Fortunately, most of those different devices run on the same hardware, making optimization easier. Even easier still is that Apple filters App Store content based on which device you have, meaning you never have to worry about performance problems. Most iOS apps are optimized for the original iPad, some high end games are optimized for the iPad 2, and there will be more apps coming that will be optimized for the new iPad.

Android is a bit more complicated. there are hundreds of configurations of Android devices, with most of those being smartphones. Most tablets will be running Tegra 2 or equivilent processors, but they don’t sell as well as the smartphones. Smartphones can run ARM processors that run anywhere from the terribly low end, like many of the cheap off-brand phones offered by no-contract carriers, to the high end like the Galaxy S II, Droid Razr, and Galaxy Nexus. Since most of the Android market is smartphone-based, most programmers will focus on that and prefer to upscale or offer paid “HD” apps for tablets.

There’s no wonder that apps on iOS tend to have better graphics and seem to run better than the Android equivilents. I’ve seen many Android apps that have a 1 or 2 star rating because it’s optimized for higher end hardware and many users will down-vote an app just because their older phone doesn’t run it well. The fate of an app lies within it’s 1-5 star rating, so there is a huge reason to cater to the lowest common denominator.

Simple Software Requires Simple Hardware

The OS and GUI are another thing to take in account. iOS isn’t a very demanding OS. Considering the hardware within the original iPhone, the reason can be pretty clear. It’s a bit disappointing that Apple hasn’t updated their OS to take advantage of the more powerful hardware and graphics, but it’s understandible if Apple wants to continue to create a unified user experience. As Anand points out in the earlier quoted article, iOS and its apps are not very well threaded and so will not take advantage of two CPU cores, let alone four.

Android, on the other hand, is a lot more demanding. Most of the demand is there based on how the user customizes the interface, but where an iPad can run fast on a single core processor, it’s interesting to see that it takes a quad core Tegra 3 to actually get Honeycomb running well. When a user customizes their homescreens with different app shortcuts, interactive widgets, and memory sucking live wallpapers, the hardware in an Android device can be quickly taxed. On one hand, it’s nice having the customization, but on the other, it’s frustrating when your device lags behind because you actually took advantage of Android’s customization.

Improving the Platform

Essentially, software is key. With iOS’s simple GUI and optimized apps, high end hardware is not needed. With Android’s wealth of hardware options, lack of optimization, and more demanding OS, it does require hardware upgrades. It’s easy to see why ARM manufacturers improve hardware for Android, but what about Apple?

The simple answer is that Apple is trying to improve the platform. The upgraded processor in the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S was completely unnecessary, but it has ushered in a new era of mobile gaming because of games optimized for the impressive graphics hardware. It’s also true that an upgraded screen, 1080p video capture, and 1080p wireless mirroring requires better hardware, but I would argue that it doesn’t need 4x the graphics power. Apple’s processor upgrade is smart. It doesn’t need CPU power, but upgrading graphics power enables better looking games and apps. I believe that the biggest thing that will improve general app graphics quality, though, will be original iPad owners upgrading to the new one. For once, the iPad 2 will be the lowest common denominator.

In Conclusion: No

Hardware really doesn’t matter. Arguments about the Tegra 3 vs. the A5x ring just as hollow as arguments between the PS3 and Xbox 360 hardware. Sure the PS3 is more powerful, but Microsoft has more partnerships than Sony, and thus, games are optimized for the Xbox and then ported. In the same vein, Apple has more partnerships with high end app makers who can easily optimize their apps for the hardware of iOS devices. Even if the Tegra 3 were 567x more powerful than the A5x, it wouldn’t matter because Android app makers would create apps optimized for the 1x devices.

The power under the hood of tablets doesn’t matter much. What matters most is the software, aesthetics, and screen quality.

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