Hands on with Windows RT and Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4

Microsoft's upcoming OS ran fairly smoothly on the Qualcomm hardware but there's no work yet on a commercial product

Qualcomm gave reporters a chance to try out Windows RT on its Snapdragon S4 processor at the Computex trade show, though there's still no word when Windows tablets on Qualcomm hardware will hit the market.

Windows RT is the first PC OS from Microsoft that will run on ARM-based processors like the Snapdragon. Expected later this year when Windows 8 ships, it should allow manufacturers to build Windows tablets and laptops with longer battery life than their x86 counterparts offer today.

I played with Windows RT for a short time on a Qualcomm reference tablet that's being used internally but hasn't shipped yet to outside developers. The tablet was running the latest consumer preview of the OS on a dual-core 1.5GHz MSM8960 Snapdragon S4 CPU with 2GB of RAM. That's the chip that will ship in the first Windows RT devices when they hit the market, said Rob Chandhok, president of Qualcomm's Internet Services division.

Soon after, Qualcomm will also offer a quad-core version of its Snapdragon S4 for Windows RT devices, but to add the extra CPU cores it will have to remove the integrated 3G and 4G LTE modems that are part of the MSM8960, Chandhok said.

Windows RT's Metro interface performed well for the most part, with one or two exceptions. The Metro tiles slid smoothly across the screen with the push of a finger. I fired up Internet Explorer 10 and navigated around the New York Times website which has lots of graphics and some Flash elements and it looked fine, especially given that I was on a 3G connection, all that was available at the time. Qualcomm said the Wi-Fi network in the demo room had become overloaded.

Photos looked crisp and Bing Maps showed our location at the Taipei Grand Hyatt, so the GPS was working. Playback of a 1080p video demo was less successful -- it stuttered to a halt after 20 seconds even though it was playing from local storage. I also had to repeat some touch gestures to get a response, but that could be because I'm new to the Metro interface. A Qualcomm representative noted it was a reference unit and said there was still some optimization work to do between the hardware and software.

Microsoft is working with three manufacturers of ARM chips to bring Windows RT to market; the others are Nvidia and Texas Instruments. Only an Nvidia-based tablet has been announced so far, however, Asustek Computer's Tablet 600 unveiled Monday.

Qualcomm couldn't say when the S4 would appear in a shipping Windows RT product. Chandhok said it was because Qualcomm's partners chose not to announce their products at Computex. He said there was no technical reason Qualcomm-based Windows RT products shouldn't be available at the same time as those from its rivals.

Chandhok expects Windows tablets and laptops with the S4 to go on sale roughly simultaneously, though there was no laptop reference design were on show here. The ARM-based chips should allow manufacturers to make slim, fanless laptops with long battery life.

Other devices will use Nvidia's quad-core Tegra 3 processor. Qualcomm's current S4 has fewer cores but the advantage of integrated 3G and 4G connectivity. It will lose that edge when it's first four-core part comes out, but somewhere down the road it will combine four cores and the 3G/4G modems on one chip, Chandhok said.

With its background in cell phones, Qualcomm hopes to distinguish itself on the power-efficiency of its processors. It released a video Monday that purports to show how hot its competitors chips run compared to its own.

"In the world of processors, heat is wasted energy -- you're basically using the battery as a space heater," Chandhok said.

The MSM8960 will be manufactured on a 28-nanometer process technology. Qualcomm has said its 28-nanometer parts will be in short supply this year, because of capacity constraints at its foundry partner TSMC, but Chandhok declined to comment on those problems Tuesday.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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