Context, not Cores, is the Tablet Industry's Challenge

Samsung showed off what makes it special this morning, with the new Exynos 5250 mobile chipset getting official ahead of its debut in next-gen smartphones and tablets next year. A 2GHz dual-core – with what Samsung reckons is twice the overall grunt of the company's current 1.5GHz dual-cores and four times the 3D graphics prowess – the Exynos 5250 is also interesting because, unlike NVIDIA, Samsung has opted for a pair of ARM Cortex A15 cores, rather than four A9 cores as in the Tegra 3. That's going to raise plenty of questions about comparative performance, heat output and power frugality, but perhaps most importantly – in the marketplace, at least – it's going to prompt an interesting marketing challenge for every company pushing a tablet or phone.

When consumers predominantly look at a tick-list of specs, generally with the mindset that "more = better", how do you get past the immediate assumption that four cores in one phone or tablet are automatically better than two cores in another phone or tablet? It's a question we've asked chipset manufacturers like Texas Instruments – another firm that has shifted to A15 rather than increase the number of A9s in its chips – before, and they generally dodge it, arguing that's something the brands using the chips in devices are are skilled at.

Samsung, though, makes both the chips and much of the hardware that those chips end up in: it can't avoid the marketing challenge. The company's press release this morning did make a vague effort to put the spec improvements into context, hitting on the 2560 x 1600 resolution and stereoscopic 3D support though not with any great gusto. That's perhaps to be expected from the semiconductor department, but unfortunately most product manufacturers aren't doing much better either. This reluctance, laziness or inability to tell would-be users why they should care is increasingly going to bite those pushing tablets and smartphones.

The chipset world is split in how it sees next-gen mobile processors taking shape. NVIDIA has thrown itself into the more-core approach, doubling up but keeping the same A9 architecture as it shifts from Tegra 2 to Tegra 3. Texas Instruments has taken the opposite approach, sticking with a pair of cores but shifting to ARM Cortex A15 architecture for a complimentary boost in power. Qualcomm, meanwhile, is hovering in-between: it designs its own chips, licensing the core tech from ARM but tweaking as it sees fit. The custom Krait cores in the Snapdragon S4 series, therefore, will have roughly the performance of an A15 but use significantly less power than either it or indeed an A9, or so Qualcomm tells us.

[aquote]Apple hardly ever talks about raw specifications, focusing instead on the experience[/aquote]

A good rule of thumb is to look at what Apple is doing, though of course the Cupertino crowd has followed a vastly different strategy with its phones and tablets. An oft-highlighted difference is the fact that Apple hardly ever talks about raw specifications, focusing instead on the experience. The iPad 2 has a dual-core chip, Apple points out, but that's so that "multitasking is smooth, apps load quickly, and anything you touch responds instantly"; similarly, the graphic chip is faster not just because that looks better on the spec sheet, but so that games and menus are "even more fluid and realistic."

However, Apple in effect has its tablet and smartphone markets to itself: nobody else makes an iOS-based "iPad" or "iPhone", whereas Samsung, ASUS, Acer, Motorola and the rest all make Android tablets and phones. In their rush to compete, they've all set the benchmark for "success" at being faster/more powerful/more-packed-with-cores. Android Tablet A is 0.23% faster than Android Tablet B, so it is A Better Device.

General consumers don't understand why that might be the case, however, so they're forced to translate the specs as best they can. Until now, the tablet market outside of the iPad has predominantly revolved around NVIDIA's Tegra 2, but that's increasingly going to diverge as the next-gen chipsets arrive. Context is something that will play a huge role as each manufacturer justifies their choice of processor.

Their challenge is arguably the consumers' gain: instead of being picked on price, or which has the skinniest chassis (but probably the same specs inside as everything else), or a color option that matches your suit, brands will be forced to explain why buyers should care rather than simply throw a long list of specifications at them. It could even result in a net benefit for manufacturers, too, a refinement in positioning opening up new niches for iPad rivals and allowing them greater space to flourish.

Samsung, Qualcomm, NVIDIA and Texas Instruments have convinced us that there'll be no shortage of power in the next-gen phones and tablets. Now the industry needs to raise its game in how it dresses that power with something even more important to end-users: context. Without that, every mobile device not wearing an Apple logo is likely to struggle to find its feet in an increasingly impatient marketplace.