Tegra 2 Isn't Enough

It's easy to get swept up in the hardware race. Several years ago it was PCs and then notebooks; now it's smartphones and tablets chomping at the bit to clash spec sheets. CES 2011 is expected to bring dual-core mobile CPUs to the fore, with NVIDIA's Tegra 2 cropping up inside devices like the LG Optimus 2X and slates including Notion Ink's much-anticipated Adam. Yet, despite the hype, it's finally dawning that Tegra 2 – or, indeed, any of the new dual-core chips – isn't enough.

Speed alone isn't sufficient for a good mobile device experience; you need the software to back it up and make the most of it, and right now that's where many gadgets are falling short. Viewsonic's underwhelming "user experience" saw it yanked from Staples shelves this weekend, echoing the Toshiba Folio 100's fall from grace in the UK last month over a similarly buggy implementation of Android. Our time with the Advent Vega, meanwhile, showed that while you can have a bulging spec sheet and a relatively tiny price tag, the software is equally important if you want a device that's impressive beyond mere benchmark results. Toshiba's AC100 is another good example of how dual-core on its own isn't enough to make a good product.

Take then, for example, the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Dismissed by many as overpriced, a smaller – later – rival for the iPad crown, Samsung has nonetheless seen impressive sales figures for its 7-inch tablet. You have to be offering something special to charge roughly double what the white-box Android slates are going for, and Samsung's magic seems to be its custom software. Rather than slapping on Android and relying on the Google brand halo to carry the Tab, the Korean company's software engineers took the time to deliver unique calendar, contacts and other apps suited to the screen size and resolution.

It's the same reason we're excited about Notion Ink's Adam. Yes, the Pixel Qi screen option is promising, and on paper the hardware generally doesn't disappoint, but the start-up's work on its unique Eden UI and multitasking system will be what makes or breaks the Adam's long-term usability. "It's a big phone" is a criticism often levelled at tablets, but most manufacturers aren't doing much to avoid it. Instead they're throwing the latest generation of chipsets into a new range of models and rolling out another PR campaign championing the boost in speed.

Perhaps we cling to the idea of hardware salvation because it's easier, or sexier. The shiniest new chip with a sky-high clock speed or umpteen cores is more straightforward to quantify than software; you can slip into Top Trumps mode and bang the stats together, proclaim device X is better than Y or Z without doing much more than casting an eye over the spec sheet. Maybe we're just biased toward hardware because software has become devalued: when Google gives away Android free, when you can find just about any app distributed as a torrent, it's little surprise that we still put more emphasis on the physical despite it being the virtual we interact with daily.

Dual-core isn't some silver bullet, and while CES 2011 will bring plenty of shiny new smartphones, tablets and more, without the software to back it up we're still looking at a half-solution that will likely disappoint in day-to-day use. Honeycomb should answer some questions for Android devices, though only later in 2011, but there's a lot to be said for manufacturers taking the time to develop their own unique implementations. 2011 will be the year of the tablet, and of the dual-core mobile CPU, but more importantly it should be the year that smart software gets the equal attention it deserves.