I'm watching a demo of Sonic 4 Episode II on the Asus Transformer Infinity Android tablet, which boasts a full 1920 by 1200 display and a ridiculous five internal cores. The hedgehog has never looked so vibrant, so colourful, so well-rendered. "If you put this next to the Xbox version, it will look the same if not better. I would say better because of the full HD," proclaims NVIDIA's regional rep Jeff Yen. I don't disagree. But will any games enthusiasts actually care?
The Infinity is one of three models in the Transformer range, all of which include a built-in keyboard dock for those moments when you realise that on-screen keyboards are completely useless. This model is being promoted as the "media and gaming" skew because of the high-resolution screen and the built-in quad-core Tegra 3 processor provided by NVIDIA. In fact, there are five processor cores, with an additional "battery server core" designed to ensure that apps which don't need lots of processing grunt don't needlessly wear down the battery.
Watching video, perhaps surprisingly, is one of those low-powered options (rendering needs grunt, but simple playback doesn't). Games, though, definitely aren't. "Developers are trying to add more new effects and experiences to make mobile games more interesting," Jeff said. "For us it's about trying to push the envelope, making games better." NVIDIA's figures suggest a 15 per cent improvement in battery life when gaming using the new system, which will be welcome news to anyone who has cursed their dying device when their homebound train gets stuck unexpectedly for two hours.
Jeff, a self-proclaimed "terrible gamer", doesn't get anywhere like that far into Sonic 4. I won't throw stones on that score; my initial reaction whenever I see the blue blur is to try and work out if there's an option to kill Tails, which might be a defensive mechanism to conceal my utter incompetence. But it does seem odd to try and demonstrate a modern, high-powered device which is being promoted as a "portable console" for current games with a 20-year-old property.
That's happening because there are, to be honest, not terribly many titles that take advantage of a 1920 by 1200 screen. NVIDIA even offers an Android app, TegraZone, to help track down those that do. They'll look splendid, no doubt, but unless hi-def tablets become a mainstream option, most developers simply aren't going to bother with the extra effort. It's one thing to up the size of your graphics, retina display style (and even that doesn't always happen). Really taking advantage of that extra grunt requires recoding, and how much of that can you justify for an app that will sell for $10 at best?
It's also questionable whether the kind of people who like mobile games (which is where Android is) care about the sort of hardware issues that occupy the overclocking-crazed PC crowd. Raw performance isn't everything. Just as Mum and Dad purchasers favoured the friendly-looking Wii over the better-resourced Xbox 360, people seeking a mobile gaming device may not bother digging into the specs.
And then there's the hardware price. The Transformer Infinity, complete with keyboard, costs $999 in Australia — more than $200 more than the US. As Luke at Gizmodo points out, this is the Australia tax at its worst. But even at the US price, I'm not sure how many people will cough up that amount of money for an Android tablet when there are much cheaper options like the Nexus 7 out there. (Asus manufactures that too, so I'm imagining it'll be celebration time at the board meeting either way.)
Overall, it's a nice piece of gear and I wouldn't complain if I had one, but I'm unconvinced that a significant proportion of gamers will see a high-powered Android tablet as an essential purchase. What do you think?