Atom Versus Tegra 3 In Windows 8 Tablets

x86 Versus ARM in a Battleroyal…

Intel - logoOne of the questions we’ve been dying to answer the past few years is who will win in the match-up between x86 and ARM. Charlie’s talked a lot about this duel in the past, noting that ARM’s instruction set architecture (ISA) is more efficient and less complicated than the current x86 ISA used by Intel, VIA, and AMD. But Charlie will also be the first to tell you about the almost comically large advantage that Intel has built for itself with its industry leading process technology. The outcome of this x86 versus ARM war will decide whether or not Intel can break into the quickly growing mobile market.

To answer this question we’ve gathered the poster child of the Windows 8 effort, Microsoft’s Surface RT convertible tablet, and a lesser known tablet from Acer called the Iconia W510. The Surface RT uses Nvidia’s Tegra 3 processor, which is a 4 plus 1 core ARM based chip and the W510 uses a recently released Atom chip from Intel dubbed the Z2670, which is a dual core hyper-threaded chip.

Both systems have 1366 by 768 pixel screens, and the screen brightness levels on these tablets were maxed out. The Surface RT has a 31.5 Watt hour battery and the Iconia W510 has a 27 Watt hour battery. In the video below I’ve done a basic comparison of the two systems and run a few benchmarks to evaluate these two tablets.

I’m sure many of you expected Intel’s new Atom to hold a performance advantage over Nvidia’s quickly ageing Tegra 3. But the fact that this little x86 chip managed to best an ARM based competitor in battery life while providing better performance is quite a feat.

For the sake of transparency it worth noting that the Surface RT lasted six hours and thirty three minutes in our video playback test and the Iconia W510 lasted six hours and fifty one minutes.

I ran an additional worst case scenario battery life test after the video had been finished to confirm that Intel’s battery life advantage held even when the chip was being pushed as hard as we could make it go. In this test each of the tablets streamed a 720P video from Youtube, while running the IE 10 fishbowl benchmark, the beta fish benchmark, and an HTML 5 canvas demo that draws geometric shapes. Running these four apps in parallel put an 80 to 100 percent load on the processor of each of these tablets. Microsoft’s Surface lasted for three hours and thirty four minutes, while Acer’s Iconia lasted for three hours and forty seven minutes. Thus Acer’s tablet again has marginally better battery life than the Surface RT.

Intel’s new “Clovertrail” Atom chips are very competitive solutions in the Windows 8 tablet segment. It will be interesting to see how they fair against tablets using Qualcomm’s Krait architecture, but for now it’s safe to say that these chips are able to best Nvidia’s Tegra 3 in regards to both performance and power consumption. Props to Intel for finally making Atom a competitive tablet solution.S|A

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Thomas Ryan is a freelance technology writer and photographer from Seattle, living in Austin. You can also find his work on SemiAccurate and PCWorld. He has a BA in Geography from the University of Washington with a minor in Urban Design and Planning and specializes in geospatial data science. If you have a hardware performance question or an interesting data set Thomas has you covered.