Tablet computers grow more popular by the day. New quad-core models promise to accelerate that trend, offering enhanced video processing and longer battery life, features that will make the devices more enticing to faculty, students and staff.
NVIDIA is at the heart of this development in the tablet market. The California manufacturer's Tegra 3 quad-core processor offers improved performance and uses 61 percent less power than a dual-core tablet doing the same tasks.
The Tegra 3 mobile chip actually includes five ARM Cortex-A9 CPU cores: four 1.6-gigahertz main cores and one 500-megahertz companion core. The companion or battery-saving core handles low-power tasks, such as Facebook updates or music streaming. Once the workload exceeds a certain power threshold, the Tegra 3 switches to the high-performance cores and disables the companion core, says Nick Stam, NVIDIA's director of technical marketing. "The processor is very intelligent, and it dynamically monitors the workload," he says.
So what does all that extra horsepower mean? A faster tablet that runs up to 12 hours between charges and supports high-quality 1080p video. The Tegra 3 powers quad-cores from Asus, Acer, Toshiba and Lenovo.
Other manufacturers are thinking along similar lines. Samsung, which offers the Galaxy Tab dual-core tablet, points to the speed and efficiency of multicore processors.
"Implementing multicore processors into the Galaxy Tab product line empowers us not only to achieve rapid computing speeds, but also to maximize battery life," says Travis Merrill, Samsung America's director of marketing for the Galaxy Tab.
Still, industry analysts caution that significant performance gains must await applications designed to take advantage of quad-core chips, though users may see an immediate improvement in games or other complex computing applications.
Richard Shim, a senior analyst for NPD Display Search, sees quad-core processors as a first step toward real performance improvements across the board. Quad-core tablets promise to let users multitask more easily, which will offer an enhanced experience, Shim predicts.
Those benefits are likely to increase the prevalence of tablets among college and university students, who already are bringing the devices to class in increasing numbers.
At Temple University in Philadelphia, educators are jumping on the trend. The university issued tablets to freshmen athletes and business honors program students last fall, running pilot programs designed to help traveling students keep up with coursework or learn outside the classroom so class time can focus on discussion.
Faculty members hope to use tablets this fall for virtual anatomy lessons and medical school reading assignments. Other teaching methods, such as game-based learning, may not be far behind, says Sheri Stahler, associate vice president for computer services at Temple.
Stahler considers quad-core tablets a "game changer" that will replace netbooks and notebook computers as the electronic higher education tool of choice.
"These processors are cheaper, more powerful and more energy-efficient," says Larry Banks, a senior technical support specialist at Temple. "They'll really level the playing field."