Hands-On With Qualcomm's Snappy Snapdragon S4 Pro Tablet

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Hold on tight, because a new speedster is coming to phones and tablets. Yesterday, Qualcomm unveiled its quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor. The company may be late to the quad-core party, but if our early look at the $1300 reference design tablet for developers is any indication of what to expect from actual shipping products, Qualcomm has brought its A-game and will be capable of delivering top-notch performance.

Qualcomm's reference design tablet is available for developers.
I spent hours digging deep into this tablet, learning more about the chip, running benchmarks, and loading it with my own content; I left encouraged by what I saw. This was not the S4 Pro's first unveiling; we've been hearing about this chip all year. But Qualcomm has announced that it is finally sampling the chip and making it available to manufacturers, which means that we should see products using the S4 Pro debuting in time for the holiday shopping season.

Qualcomm also took the unusual step of allowing full access to its reference design tablet. This tablet lacked the finesse of what I'd expect from a commercial release, though it appeared improved from some of the rougher designs I'd seen demoed earlier in the year. It's thicker than you'd expect, and heavier, with 1366-by-768-pixel resolution and a huge air gap on the screen.

By having full access to this reference design—dubbed an MDP/T, or mobile development platform tablet, and the first device to use the Snapdragon S4 Pro APQ8064 processor—we had the chance to run this processor through its paces at first-hand, those paces including both raw benchmarking and user experience.

Besides the S4 Pro processor, the tablet has 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, and runs a stock version of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. (Qualcomm has 4.1 Jelly Bean working in its labs, and plans to offer an upgrade when it's ready.) The 2GB of RAM (instead of 1GB) is neither necessary nor a given for the S4 Pro platform, according to Qualcomm. We were told that the MDP/T includes 2GB more or less because the company wanted to pack it to its fullest for developers; but the tablet standard today is 1GB, and Qualcomm indicated that the extra RAM shouldn't directly affect performance, as currently no applications would take advantage of it.

Benchmark Star

On six of the benchmarks that we use regularly in PCWorld Labs testing, this MDP outscored our entire field of Android tablets, and came closer to the Apple iPad than any other model in our GLBenchmark tests. If the MDP tablet's performance carries over to the actual shipping product, Qualcomm's S4 Pro could be the new performance leader for Android tablets.

In the current Android tablet field are many models with Nvidia's Tegra 3 platform, the fastest Nvidia competitor for the Snapdragon system-on-chip, or SoC. Earlier this year, a leaked Nvidia roadmap indicated that the company was readying the Tegra 4 for the first quarter of 2013; if that plan holds, and wasn't accelerated for a release later this year, Snapdragon could be the snappiest SoC around for holiday shoppers.

The most direct matchup is between the S4 Pro MDP/T and the Nvidia Tegra 3-based Asus Transformer Pad Infinity, the best of our Android performers until now. On some metrics, the performance gap was clearer than on others. On the Geekbench benchmark, the S4 Pro MDP/T was 23 percent faster than the Infinity; but on AndEBench's native test, the S4 Pro MDP/T was only 2 percent faster.

The S4 Pro MDP/T blasted through tests involving Web browsing. On AndEBench's Java test, the S4 Pro MDP/T was 15 percent faster, which may be a testament to some of the Web browsing performance enhancements that Qualcomm has discussed focusing on with the S4 Pro SoC. And on Sunspider, the S4 Pro MDP/T completed the benchmark in 1.2 seconds, 37 percent less time than the Infinity, and 28 percent less time than the Google Nexus 7, one of our previous stars on this test.

We used GLBenchmark to measure the graphics performance of the new Adreno 320 graphics processor that's in the S4 Pro's system-on-chip. Here, the S4 Pro MDP/T ran away from the rest of the Android field: On Egypt Offscreen, it scored 132 frames per second, and on Pro Offscreen it scored 183 fps. We use Offscreen to measure performance because it's a truer torture test of the chip's graphics potential, without factoring in resolution constraints. By comparison, the Apple iPad scored 139 fps and 244 fps respectively. And the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity scored 74 fps and 96 fps, respectively.

On two other benchmark tests, the S4 Pro MDP/T continued to show its mettle. On Nenamark 2, it scored 60 fps to the Infinity's 40 fps, and on Basemark Taiji Free, it scored a 60, to the Asus's 7.

Real-World Use

While the S4 Pro clearly excelled in the numbers it posted, the real proof lies in how the S4 Pro platform could improve the user experience through better performance. Experience can be a tricky thing to measure, though, given that even if a system-on-chip platform has the potential to do X in performance, the software that you're running on it may not be optimized to take advantage of that power.

So what did I see during my time using the tablet?

The S4 Pro MDP/T may have the potential to be superfast at Web browsing, but my ability to gauge this consistently was constrained by the hotel conference area's Wi-Fi connection. It seemed to load pages quickly, but the experience was mixed (and other tablets struggled at the same time, too).

On Basemark Taiji Free, character movement was smoother on the S4 Pro MDP/T than on the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity, which stuttered its way through the Taiji exercise.

The game Dead Trigger—which is optimized for Nvidia's Tegra 3—had smoother panning movements through the opening map on the Tegra 3-based Asus Transformer Pad Infinity than on the S4 Pro MDP/T. I also saw fewer antialiasing effects around the lines of the bridge, and more detail in the waves than on the S4 Pro tablet.

Another Tegra 3-optimized game, Riptide GP, lacked the screen splashes and some of the effects found when playing the game on Tegra 3 tablets; but I couldn't detect any significant speed differences in how the game performed between the S4 Pro and the Infinity.

My standard go-to test for any tablet is to load folders of high-resolution images to the tablet and see how the Google Gallery handles the images. Turns out the S4 Pro is a pro here: On the MDP/T, I slammed through some 100 images in an album, and watched the thumbnails redraw more quickly than on the Asus Infinity. I also found that there was no redraw lag as I zoomed in and out of images and panned around them. This kind of performance could be a huge boon for photographers and photo enthusiasts.

Another point that impressed: the camera's performance. I'm not talking about megapixels and image output, but rather the performance for image capture. When I fired up the camera, I immediately noticed that Qualcomm's talk about improving the camera on the S4 Pro wasn't just talk: The camera was more responsive than typical Android tablets at focusing, capturing the image once you press the capture button on-screen, and recycling to let you capture another image in quick succession. Often, the lag on that process can be interminable on Android tablets and renders those cameras frustrating to use.

A Qualcomm software engineer revealed to me in detail that the processing of the frames coming through the camera sensor goes through Qualcomm's video processing in its hardware pipeline, where those frames get hardware acceleration on the S4 Pro processor before getting rendered through the Android framework. Qualcomm says it is using Video for Linux 2 as the interface between the camera application and their engine and camera processing. The focusing algorithms are done by Qualcomm, too.

What Lies Ahead

No question that the Qualcomm S4 Pro APQ8064 system-on-chip is poised to turn heads when tablets (and phones) using the platform surface later this year. Qualcomm says to expect the platform to appear for Android first, though clearly it was designed with Windows 8 in mind as well. The reference design itself supports Windows-friendly 1366-by-768-pixel resolution, and even has a USB 3.0 connector and PCI-to-USB 3.0 bridge on board, and it can support a full-size SD card slot or USB port in addition to those for microSD and microUSB already found on the MDP/T.

The bigger question in my mind is how will this “pure” experience translate into the products we see at market, with whatever software enhancements, component choices, or tweaks that individual manufacturers choose to use. As journalists, we rarely get a chance to get this kind of hands-on experience with a reference design, so I have no comparison directly from other chip makers. But I do know that the raw design is one thing, and a mass-market, manufactured consumer product are two totally different things.

The upshot is that Qualcomm is jumping into the tablet space in a big way with the S4 Pro, and is providing a challenge to Nvidia's current domination of the Android tablet space. The upcoming months should prove pretty interesting, with both Qualcomm and, eventually, Intel getting into an increasingly competitive tablet market.

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