Microsoft Surface tablets: The first true Intel vs. Nvidia battle

Posted by Rob Enderle

The new Microsoft Surface Tablets are pretty sweet indeed. However, I highly doubt most of the industry understands how the tablet's Optical Display will actually change the market.

Nevertheless, Microsoft Surface marks the first time Intel and Nvidia have squared off on an even playing field. It is also the first time since Steve Jobs passed away that a key Apple skill tied to the former CEO will be tested in real world conditions.

Microsoft Surface tablets: The first true Intel vs. Nvidia battleIt is certainly no secret that Intel and Nvidia have had their share of disagreements over the years.

However, such disputes have primarily revolved around the two industry heavyweights providing their respective technologies for the purpose of building the same class of machines.  

At the high end, Intel (historically) couldn’t manage to bring its own graphics product to market, while Nvidia was typically the company that ended up finishing a given platform. The latest blend? Apple's MacBook lineup, as the higher end models pair Intel processors with Nvidia graphics. While we certainly have seen Intel and AMD go head to head, Nvidia just didn’t have the breadth to take Intel on directly. Until now, that is. 

Indeed, the next generation of Windows Surface Tablets will hit the market in two competing configurations: ARM, which uses Nvidia's Tegra 3 tech and the x86 version powered by Intel's Core platform. This means nearly identical looking products will not only challenge the iPad, but also compete against each other. Interestingly enough, Nvidia may just have the upper hand.

iPad Standard

Currently, there really isn’t much of a tablet market to speak of. Rather, there is an iPad market and a bunch of Android OEMs trying desperately, though largely unsuccessfully, to enter the lucrative space.  The bestselling iPad competitor to date (outside of the short lived $100 HP TouchPad) is the Samsung Galaxy Tablet and it is essentially a nearly facsimile (alhough arguably better looking) of the iPad.  

Clearly, Apple sets the gold standard for tablets and the closest thing to a Windows 8 iPad will be Microsoft's RT-powered Surface. It boasts a similar processor and hovers in the same price range, yet is capable of more (in terms of content creation) than the iPad. So it can definitely be marketed as a "better" iPad than the iPad, and since Apple's tablet is the gold industry standard, this strategy (which basically portrays the iPad as crippled) should work if it is done well. 

The RT Surface tablet, at least initially, will be based on Nvidia's Tegra processor. As such, the tablet will boast strong graphics, along with a power advantage - which could exceed even the iPad. Of course, we won’t know for certain until it ships, but Surface is likely to share similiar price with Apple's tablet, as it continues building on the concept of an iPad+.

Meanwhile, the Intel-based product will be more capable - but at a price that includes higher cost, lower battery life (for the same size and weight specifications), and more complexity. While the x86-powered Surface can also be categorized as an iPad+, it is likely to remain distinct and be perceived as more of a "laptop like" product. Of course, it will lack a traditional clam shell form and differ in size, making the device more difficult to sell.

Granted, Santa Clara has an impressive war chest of marketing funds, but their best approach is probably to portray Nvidia's version as somewhat hobbled by a lack of raw processing power. Of course, if Apple is smart, and Cupertino generally is, it will simply dovetail on Intel’s message - which could really piss off Microsoft and kill the entire product. As such, consumers faced with both Intel and Apple marketing campaigns may simply conclude that Windows 8 royally sucks and go back to buying iPads.

Essentially, the Nvidia/ARM Surface boasts two advantages: it is the closest device to an iPad and Intel is somewhat constrained in terms of pointing out its shortcomings, as such a move could result in the segment failing and Microsoft abandoning x86 entirely for it. 

This is a very real risk because Microsoft has already chosen to deploy ARM processors in Windows phones and would generally prefer not to support two processors. Then again, it should be noted that  both Intel and Nvidia sell to Apple, so each company will likely have to be somewhat constrained in attacking the iPad. Historically, Apple hasn't displayed much humor or tolerance for partners who disparage a key product.

Wrapping Up:  Battle is Balanced

In terms of resources, Intel defiitely has deeper pockets. However, when it comes to ease of marketing, Nvidia's platform boasts a definite advantage. Of course, this all hinges on the fact that Apple currently sets the gold standard and the Nvidia-powered Surface comes closest to it. In short, Intel’s formidable resources are largely offset by Nvidia's strategic positioning, making the upcoming battle perhaps one of the most balanced Intel has ever faced - and offering the strongest initial advantage any Intel competitor has ever fielded.

Yes, the tablets themselves are indeed cool, but this battle will be fascinating to watch - particularly since many in the industry believe that sans Steve Jobs Apple no longer has the skillset to play both of these efforts against each other to win. Perhaps by the end of this year, we’ll know if Intel can still win on a flat playing field, and if Nvidia can triumph against Santa Clara if given the chance. Then again, Apple still holds most, if not all of the cards here and remains the dominant player in the lucrative tablet space.