Mike Isaac

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At CES, Chipmakers Go All In on Mobile

chips1I’ve been in Las Vegas for CES nearly a week now, and I keep getting asked what the most noteworthy product launches have been. In the recent past, each year had a theme — tablets, Android phones, 3-D TVs — so I half expected another wave of something similar. Smart TVs, perhaps, or maybe a connected home peripheral.

Thing is, the biggest debuts haven’t been the stuff you’ll find on Best Buy shelves. It’s the stuff powering the stuff on those shelves. That is to say, it’s the processor guys’ day in the sun, as some of the largest names in the components industry are pushing more powerful chips in the new year, with sights set directly on mobile devices.

It’s telling of a sea change when Qualcomm — hardly a premier consumer electronics company by any stretch — takes over the keynote reins from Microsoft, the longstanding CES headliner of the past 12 years. That brought Qualcomm’s big debut of the night, the new Snapdragon 800 and 600 series of quad-core mobile chips, which will see a boost in graphics and general performance upwards of 75 percent compared to its current chip line.

More-powerful, less-energy-sucking chipsets: It’s the exact direction the chip industry is headed, brought on by the influx of smartphones, tablets, netbooks and Ultrabooks over the past five years. These days, consumers expect a high-performance smartphone capable of running the latest graphics-heavy apps while still delivering a battery charge longer than a handful of hours.

samsung_exynos_5_octaNvidia, a California-based chipmaker long known for its graphical processing prowess, has done well for itself in the low-power consumption arena in recent years. The company’s Tegra 3 chips are found in a number of high-end Android smartphones currently on the market, and on Sunday, Nvidia unveiled the Tegra 4 line of chips, which aims at even more power and lower energy consumption than its predecessor line.

Nvidia, Qualcomm and others have used the past few years to get the jump on Intel — the veritable Goliath of the chip industry — by licensing chipset architectures from the British ARM Holdings company, which specializes in low-power chipset designs. Samsung, too, uses the ARM-based architecture, and on Wednesday it unveiled the Exynos 5 Octa line, an eight-core mobile chip, again aimed at mobile devices.

Intel’s problem: The company has long specialized in producing the latest and greatest in powerhouse processors, and has dominated the desktop market doing so. But as we slowly transition from a desktop-centric world to a mobile-centric one, Intel has struggled to adapt as quickly as some of its competitors.

Of course, Intel wants to escape that image and regain share. That’s the impetus behind Intel’s mobile-centric Atom series in recent times, and the new “Lexington” and “Bay Trail” chips that debuted at CES on Monday.

Don’t get too excited quite yet, components nerds. As is the case at most every CES, all the stuff we’re seeing unveiled is still rather vaporous, not hitting the market until the second half of 2013 at the earliest.

For now, we’ll have to make do with current-gen power expectations and performance, and see which chip giants actually make good on their promises come next Christmas.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus