More CPUs won’t solve Android’s tablet problems

Asus showed off the first Android tablet powered by a quad-core chip at the AsiaD conference on Thursday morning. The Asus Transformer, currently available with a dual-core chip, uses Nvidia’s(s nvda) newest system on a chip (SOC), dubbed “Kal-El.” The faster, updated Transformer isn’t yet for sale, but Asus is holding a press event in early November, where it’s expected to announce pricing and availability. Unfortunately, Asus hasn’t said if the refreshed tablet will first arrive with Google Android Honeycomb(s goog) or Ice Cream Sandwich.

If the new Transformer arrives with the Google’s current software, it will surely see an upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich, known as Android 4.0. That software refresh will do far more for the Android tablet market than more powerful hardware, thanks to new software features and user interface tweaks. I’m not suggesting that Nvidia’s silicon isn’t needed nor impressive. Early video demonstrations of the Kal-El chip — which also has a dozen graphics cores — show incredible game fluidity and superb lighting effects. As a hardware addict, I welcome the advanced chips that Nvidia and others are bringing to new devices. But hardware isn’t the problem.

If faster chips alone meant “winning” the tablet war, Android would have had the edge. When the first Android 3.0 tablet — Motorola’s Xoom(s mmi) — arrived in February, it had a dual-core chip. Apple’s iPad(s aapl) didn’t gain two cores until the April release of the iPad 2, but the Xoom didn’t even dent the tablet market compared the iPad: Motorola has shipped (not sold) 690,000 units in the first two fiscal quarters of availability, while Apple sold 11.12 million iPads in the last quarter alone. Motorola’s next investor call is later this month, so we’ll see if Xoom shipments have increased or not.

Why the huge difference in sales? For one, the Xoom’s hardware wasn’t quite complete as it took more than six months to bring the promised LTE mobile broadband radio to the tablet. But more importantly, the interface was fairly muddled and few software applications were created to take advantage of the form factor. Many existing Android smartphone apps ran on it, but added no extra benefit to go with the larger screen. The Xoom is just an example; no other Android 3.0 tablets have rivaled the iPad’s sales either. Even collectively, Android tablets are outsold by the iPad at least five-fold, if not more.

While hardware is still an important enabler of mobile devices, gone are the days when the “most powerful rigs” are the best. Software, services and user experience are equally valuable, if not more so. Until Android 4.0 arrives on tablets, all the computer cores in the world aren’t likely to radically change the mix of tablet sales by platform.

When Ice Cream Sandwich does arrive, that’s when Android will better compete with iOS in the tablet market, because all of the pieces of the successful tablet puzzle will be put together. Capable hardware in the form of chips from Nvidia and others combined with forward-thinking apps that take advantage of the hardware will start to make a difference. Add in Ice Cream Sandwich’s much improved, consistent Android user interface and then we’ll see if Android tablets are ready to take on the iPad.