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According to Qualcomm, its S4 Pro will be the next big thing in mobile performance, powering a new generation of smartphones and tablets. We put the company's claim to the test. The result? We think the competition, especially Nvidia, should be worried.
Since the beginning of computing, true enthusiasts have wanted to know more about the underlying hardware in their machines. From the old Tandy 1000 with Intel's 8088 processor to modern tablets with ARM-based architectures, components under the hood matter, even if we only use them to enjoy the device itself.
Back in the '80s, standardization made it possible to start swapping parts in and out of an IBM-compatible PC. Although most subsystems were soldered in, we still remember adding serial mouse cards, modems, and "high-end" 20 MB hard drives.
Over time, we were delighted to get access to upgradeable processors (even on-board L2 cache modules), standardized memory formats, faster graphics interfaces, and a broad range of peripherals. It was truly a golden age for power users who knew exactly what they wanted to to spend and where to spend it for the best experience.
Check out our interview with Four Android And iOS Game Developers for an insider's look of how the software world will evolve, and why hardware plays such an important role.
That model lives on today in enthusiast desktops. However, as we push forward into an era of mobility, compact tablet and smartphone form factors prevent the flexibility typical of a gaming machine at home. When you buy a mobile device, your choices narrow to the capacity of non-volatile memory available for storing music, movies, and pictures.
We've moved backwards in a sense. In the interest of being portable, we're willing to give up the ability to play games at the same quality we're used to. And the smaller you go, the worse performance gets. Because these diminutive platforms are all highly integrated, there's not a darned thing an enthusiast can typically do to make his or her hardware run faster.
Here's the thing, though. Developers aren't just writing software for iOS or Android anymore. They're actually optimizing and targeting specific platforms now. Nvidia has, perhaps, seen the most success engaging with the software community and getting games enabled on its Tegra 3 SoC that simply won't run as well on other Android-based gadgets. That means you have to do your homework now more than ever.
Despite the truly amazing things we've seen ISVs do for Tegra 3, Nvidia's share of the smartphone market was comparatively small in 2011 (it ranked sixth, according to Strategy Analytics). The top player was Qualcomm with its family of Snapdragon SoCs. Naturally, any move the company makes is going to have a profound impact on the mobile market moving forward.
Qualcomm recently invited us to a benchmark workshop where we were offered an opportunity to go hands-on with its S4 Pro, available in two- and four-core configurations.
Shortly thereafter, we acquired an S4 Pro Mobile Development Platform of our own, allowing us to perform controlled comparisons against other tablets in our lab based on competing architectures. This one's data-heavy, so buckle up!