Video: An Obvious Killer App for Tablets

After a decade or so of various failed or underwhelming attempts, it is now blatantly obvious that Apple kicked off the consumer tablet revolution with their launch of iPad in 2010. By getting the hardware, pricing, UI and application ecosystem right, they have managed to sell 15 million units in 2010 alone (April - December), bringing in $9.5 billion.

An obvious killer app for this kind of device is video. At the distance you hold a tablet it has the same apparent size as a massive TV screen. The easy-to-hold and carry form factor, the long battery life, the high quality screen and speakers - and apps like Hulu Plus, Netflix, ABC and CBS pretty much have the TV and movie situation covered, with more services and apps coming all the time, to both iOS and Android devices.

In the not-too-distant future, practically everyone will have a tablet, and everyone will want to watch video on them. Awesome!

1) NVIDIA Tegra2 Chip Performance Surprises: Not What They Claim To Be

You've probably noticed the recent explosion in Android handsets and tablets powered by the NVIDIA Tegra 2 chip. It offers extremely impressive performance with a dual core ARM Cortex-A90 clocked at 1Ghz, and powers the latest devices including the Motorola Xoom, Atrix, Bionic and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 along with a host of others just-released or near-release.

Tegra 2's Dirty Little Secret
What you may not be aware of amidst all the marketing is how poorly these Tegra 2 chips decode video. Tegra 2 is not capable of playing just any old video format. While technically it supports H.264 at 720p and 1080p, it specifically only supports the "Baseline" profile which means two reference frames and no B frames.

This means you must take your existing HD video files and re-encode them into a special format using a program like handbrake. According to Anandtech, that puts a 2 hour movie at around 8 GB - too big to fit as a single file on a typical microSD card formatted with FAT32.

Additionally, with those kinds of space requirements, streaming 1080p HD video for viewing on your device quickly becomes extremely bandwidth intensive (~10mbps). Almost certainly too high for most consumer Internet connections - according to DSL reports average Internet connection speed in USA is 4.7Mbps.

In other words, your brand spanking new, top-of-the-line 2011 dual core 1Ghz tablet cannot simply play any 720p/1080p HD video file you throw at it. Unlike a cheap PC or media center, in order to watch video on your shiny new Tegra 2-based tablet you:

  • Almost certainly will have to re-encode your video specially for the device.
  • Need a ton of storage space, approx. 8G per movie, possibly having the video split across multiple files.
  • If streaming true HD video in 1080p baseline profile, need a very fast (~10mbps) Internet connection. (FWIW BBC iPlayer HD streams are 720p @ 3.2 MBPS. These HD streams are not available on iPad since that only supports baseline too!)

Ouch! Rumour suggests this is one of the reasons why HTPC (Home Theater PC) manufacturer Boxee ditched the Tegra 2 platform for the Intel Atom.

2) Samsung's Hummingbird CPU: DivX Certification

An interesting tidbit about Samsung's Android devices: Many of them - including 7" Galaxy Tab and the Galaxy S phone - are DivX certified! What does this mean? It means they can play pretty much any old HD video file (at least 720p high profile) you throw at them without the friction of painful, space-wasting conversion processes!

What about the soon-to-be-released Galaxy Tab 10.1? We don't know exactly, however all information so far suggests it will be powered by the same NVIDIA Tegra 2 chip. Unless Samsung does something custom, this device will have the same video limitations as the Motorola Xoom.

However, there is speculation that the other tablets Samsung is planning - in particular an 8.9" device - may use the next generation Samsung CPU named Exynos. This dual-core CPU could well have the same DivX certification as the Hummingbird devices, offering these devices superior video playback capabilities compared to Tegra 2.

This may mean that consumers interested in good video playback support should hold off on the otherwise very promising Galaxy Tab 10.1 and wait for an Exynos-powered device instead.

3) Tegra 2 Honeycomb Exclusivity: But Won't Last Long

Android 3.0 AKA Honeycomb is the first tablet-optimized version of the OS. If you want to be able to truly take advantage of the extra screen real estate afforded by the tablet form-factor, you will want a device with Honeycomb.

The first round of Android 3.0 tablets are all powered by Tegra 2. According to the SVP of Cellular Products at Qualcomm the reason for this is that Google partnered with Motorola on the initial launch devices. For whatever reason, Motorola chose Tegra. However, Honeycomb will soon be ported to and running on processors from other vendors.

As soon as Google open-sources Honeycomb, we should see a flood of Android 3.0 tablets from vendors like Acer, Asus, HTC, Samsung and others with much better video playback support - which means much better value for consumers!

Niall O'Higgins is an author and software developer. He wrote the O'Reilly book MongoDB and Python. He also develops Strider Open Source Continuous Deployment and offers full-stack consulting services at

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